Review: “The Ties That Bind: The River Collection”

New Springsteen set chronicles the making of his 1980 double album.

Photo courtesy of Joel Bernstein

In the late 1970s, Bruce Springsteen retreated to a farmhouse on 160 acres in Holmdel to begin crafting what was to become his 1980 double album, The River.

He was approaching 30 and was eager to write an album about family and connection—and to leave behind the youthful dreams of 1975’s Born to Run and the debilitating isolation of 1978’s Darkness On the Edge of Town.  But it wasn’t an easy process. His new box set, The Ties That Bind: The River Collection, out December 4, lovingly chronicles the project’s difficult birth, while delivering a treasure trove of material that will delight and inform Springsteen fans 35 years after the original release.

The deluxe version of the new set has four CDs, three DVDs and a 148-page coffee table book. The four CDs include The River on two discs and the single-album version that Springsteen initially turned in to Columbia Records in 1979 and yanked back before its release. (Seven of the 10 songs, some reworked, eventually ended up on the double album). Of most interest to Springsteen fans will be the CD containing 22 outtakes from the final version of The River. While diehard fans are familiar with many of the tunes from their later inclusion on the Tracks box set and the Essential collection, there are some gems in the never-before officially released material, especially the haunting, six-minute lament “Stray Bullet,” the loose-limbed “Chain Lightning” and “Party Lights,” which takes a page from British band the Searchers’ version of “Needles and Pins.”

The DVDs include a 60-minute documentary with the current-day Springsteen reflecting on the making of The River. The documentary would have benefitted from more voices. Surely Steven Van Zandt, who co-produced the original album, must have interesting thoughts about what was often a torturous process.

More enjoyable viewing comes from the truncated version of Springsteen & the E Street Band’s November 5, 1980, show at Arizona State University in Tempe, which took place less than three weeks after the release of The River and the day after Ronald Reagan was elected president. The 24-song concert here (cut down from the 35 tunes performed that night) shows Springsteen and the six-piece E Street Band in glorious form, especially on a breathtaking, extended version of “Drive All Night” and a jubilant, exhilarating “Rosalita.”

Springsteen and the E Street Band will launch a nine-week U.S. tour in 2016 to coincide with the collection. The band will play one show in New Jersey, on January 31 at the Prudential Center in Newark. For tickets, visit brucespringsteen.net/category/live-dates.

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