Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Some Observations About Bruce Springsteen's The River

Recently, a friend of mine was recounting on a message board a conversation with his brother where he proclaimed Darkness at the Edge of Town to be a better record than The River, and I had to confess that early catalog of Bruce Springsteen is one of those holes in my musical knowledge that begged filling, so I acquired both. After a couple days listening, I vote with Darkness*, but it's a close race. In this, though, I did observe a few things about The River...

  1. "Jackson Cage" might be my new favorite song of his, wrestling the title away from "Atlantic City" and/or "Downbound Train" You can't toss a paper airplane made from your pink slip without it landing on a mediation on the corrosive nature of work in Bruce's songbook, but the lies inherent to the Protestant Work Ethic smolder in lines like

    To settle back is to settle without knowing
    The hard edge that you're settling for


    Are you tough enough to play the game they play
    Or will you just do your time and fade away

    This is the kind of song I could not listen to if I still had an office job and had to slog through evening traffic night after night. Kinda like how I could not watch Brazil when I was facing the choice between graduate school and a corporate job, both in fields I was not sure I really liked anymore.
  2. The only time I'd heard 'Jackson Cage" before was a ham-fisted rendition by Elvis Costello on a compilation, and the synth and drumroll intro on the original ironically sounds like the beginning of the best Elvis Costello song that never was.
  3. "Outfit," generally considered the best song by Drive-By Truckers, is either a rip-off or a close homage to "Independence Day" which has the same structure, mood and nearly the same melody. It doesn't diminish the impact or cosmic truths in "Outfit," but the threads between the two are clearly there.
  4. I didn't realize "Hungry Heart" was that old of a song. I thought it emerged in that retro frat rock era along with Huey Lewis and the News and The Fabulous Thunderbirds. I mean, its a better song those by Huey lewis, but still...
  5. I could never put my finger on what Bruce Springsteen "sounds like" until I listened to "Out in the Street" - it's like he's panting, out of breath and nervous - it's as if he has run two blocks to tell you something important. Such is the urgency of The Boss.
  6. For all the wrecking ball devastation in the title track, it's this bit that hits the hardest

    But I remember us riding in my brother's car
    Her body tan and wet down at the reservoir

    At night on them banks I'd lie awake
    And pull her close just to feel each breath she'd take

    It is corny as all hell, but like Johnny Cash, Bruce Springsteen knows how to sharpen sap to a Ginsu edge, knowing how to temper it with just enough light, with nostaligia precise enough to make it work gloriously.
  7. What keeps the album from edging out its competitors is that by the time he is driving that stolen car down Eldridge Street, hoping to get caught, I'm worn down by all the emotional erosion of this record. Goddamn, Bruce, I know. It never really works out right and our temporary denial is a thin sheet of ice we shimmy across on Saturday night, hoping we don't fall through. But I can' t take any more. On Darkness, he is tighter, his dogs are on a shorter leash. On Nebraska, he lets the leashes run right through his tired fingers, with no hope that they are going to come back. On The River. those dogs have just enough lead to sneak up to the fence when you walk by and suddenly bark that demon dog bark and scare you down to your spine.
  8. On the latest Bright Eyes album Cassadaga, which I love more and more each time I listen to it, there is a line in "If The Brakeman Turns My Way"

    Tried to listen to the river
    But you couldn't shut your mouth
    Better take a little time to level out

    and of course, he might be talking about an actual river and an actual babbling trollop getting in the way of his Angry Young Man need for forced transcendence at its banks, but it struck me that he might be talking about The River, and its a combination of his own thoughts on the record and Bruce himself who keeps coming at you with his panting and pleading and sadness and nervous laughter and Clarence's goddamn saxophone and that piano tapping out constant distress calls all night and that it is all too much to take in.
* truth be told, I always vote with darkness

1 comment:

  1. "it's like he's panting, out of breath and nervous - it's as if he has run two blocks to tell you something important. Such is the urgency of The Boss."

    You are so right!

    "Jackson Cage" - I loved the song the first time I got to hear the "River"-LP. Brilliant song.