At the start of Thom Zinny's making-of documentary included in The Ties That Bind: The River Collection (Columbia****) (4 CDs, 2 DVDs or Blu-Rays; $92.19 on Amazon), Bruce Springsteen illustrates a point with an acoustic performance of "Two Hearts," a crucial song on The River, the 1980 album into which the new six-disc box does a deep dive.
"Once I spent my time playing tough-guy scenes," the Boss sings. "But I was living in a world of childish dreams / Some day these childish dreams must end, to become a man and grow up to dream again."
The River was the first Springsteen album to spawn a pop radio hit, "Hungry Heart," a song the writer planned to give away to the Ramones until his manager Jon Landau convinced him otherwise.
And while widening his audience, it broadened the scope of his music. It was the first grown-up Springsteen album, leaving behind the escapist fantasy of Born to Run and fist-pounding self-determination of Darkness on the Edge of Town to make room for the full range of adult experience and look for sustenance by placing the individual as part of a larger community. As the lead song on the original album put it: "You can't break the ties that bind."
To fit everything in, The River, originally conceived as a single LP, turned into a double album. That made room for the frat-rock shenanigans of "Sherry Darling" and the Oedipal drama of "Independence Day," the deathly joyride of "Cadillac Ranch" and the country existentialism of "Wreck on the Highway," in an attempt to reflect the excitement and emotional ups and downs of Springsteen's live shows.
Those epic enterprises first grew to legendary three-hour-plus length in 1980, and 35 years later, along with the E Street Band, Springsteen is set to tour behind the new box, with a jaunt that opens on Jan. 16 in Pittsburgh and comes to the Wells Fargo Center in South Philadelphia on Feb. 12.
Although The River was and remains Springsteen's most expansive album, its 20 songs included less than half the material recorded for the project. In addition to a remastered version of the official release, the box contains the originally planned single album, with at times drastically altered versions of familiar songs plus three that didn't make the album, including the magisterial "Loose End." Additionally, there's a disc with 22 more songs that didn't make the cut, some of which have been widely bootlegged or officially released, and others that have not.
In some cases, they're fascinating as work tapes. Thank goodness he junked the perky "Living on the Edge of the World" and rewrote it as "Open All Night" for Nebraska. But there are many other fully formed songs, the best of which - "Where the Bands Are," "Restless Nights," "Take 'Em as They Come" - show a melodic, often Byrdsian strain in Springsteen's sound, up the alley of guitarist and consigliere Steven Van Zandt.
Many Springsteen fans scratch their heads at the notion that he could leave off the album the epic "Roulette," a terror-stricken churner written in the wake of the Three Mile Island nuclear power accident near Harrisburg in 1979. It's overrated, as rarities often are, but it's significant in that it signaled a new political direction that would become more pronounced.
A watershed moment in that process is also captured in The River Collection's prize feature: A full-length video of a November 1980 concert in Tempe, Ariz., that captures the Boss and E Streeters in sweaty and superb form, when they were a relatively lean and mean unit compared to the outsize ensemble they tour as today.
The Tempe show was recorded the day after Ronald Reagan was elected president. Between "The River" and "Badlands," Springsteen addresses the crowd: "I don't know what you guys think about what happened last night. But I think it's pretty frightening." (Reagan would famously later push Springsteen farther to the left by evoking "Born in the U.S.A." in a campaign speech.)
Election-related or not, urgency courses through the show, as a mutton-chopped Boss throws himself into a cathartic performance, and particularly impresses on The River ballads, including "Drive All Night" and an extended street-corner soul intro to "I Wanna Marry You."