Bruce Springsteen is more than simply a rock-and-roll performer, he is a man who has been taken to heart. Where Elvis' power came from sex and isolation, and Dylan's visionary magic derived from his struggles with desolation, Springsteen has moved people with the course of his life.
From the beginning of his recording career he has written autobiography, and doesn't so much perform as recall living moments and make his audience live them with him. Springsteen's strength has been his ability to make specifics into universals ("The poets down here don't write nothing at all, they just stand back and let it all be"). His weakness has come only when he's tried to lean on working-class advocacy as in "Factory" and "Adam Raised a Cain." "The River" (Columbia PC2 36854), a 20-song double album released this week after two years in the making, contains a lot of both.
"Greeting From Asbury Park, N.J.c and "The Wild, the Innocent and the E street Shuffle," Springsteen's first two albums, defined his world. Through force of his own spectacular imagery, he elevated simple palm parlors like Madam Marie's to mythic soothsayers' outposts. On "Born to Run," he escaped gladly from that ramshackle playland into an undefined but optimistic night. On "Darkness on the Edge of Town" he realized that escape was not enough, that he was being chased, and he was not alone. There was a self-consciousness growing: His songs were living for people and it seemed he took this responsibility to heart.
On the new album, Springsteen is no longer on the run, and no longer using his direct experience as inspiration. He seems to have turned self-conscious spokesman for the young working class. In many of his songs, he no longer talks about these characters -- they are given voices of their own. More often than not, that voice doesn't ring entirely true. He has sacrificed awe-inspiring ability to turn a phrase in favor of neophyte blue-collar polemics: Stud Lonigan meets the Drifters.
"The River" opens with two troubled but ultimately uplifting up-tempo numbers, "The Ties That Bind" and "Sherry Darling." The Frist is an affirmation that pain exists and that it can be conquered by love and friendship. The second is a freetime anthem of a guy with a car, a girl, a six-pack and no job. Unemployed but undefeated. These are the kinds of songs Springtseen seems to toss off effortlessly. And because he clearly feels so fine doing it, they make the listener glad to be included, happy to be part of the gang and running with Springsteen.
The album is split almost in half between ballads and rockers. First hearing suggests no quantum musical leap here as there was between Springsteen's first three albums. But what seems at first familiar keeps flashing new tricks, new depths, like an intimate sidekick rather than the grand gang leader that was "Born to Run." "The River," for all its polemics, is an album one can listen to for its 83-minute length and then flip over and play again.
The E Street Band proves one more time that it is the tightest rock-and-roll group in America. Roy Bittan is particularly notable for the delicacy and evocative sensitivity of his piano playing. Bassist Garry Tallent and drummer Max Wienberg provide the back-beat and bombast. This is not the guitar album that "Darkness" was, and Clarence Clemons uses his solo sax time to good advantage. Guitarist Steve Van Zandt, who co-produced the album with Springsteen and John Landau, is effective but unobstrusive. On organ, Danny Federici sounds alternately like Dave "Baby" Cortez and whoever it was played behind Del Shannon. But the band is not a pastiche of virtuosi and what comes through is truly the work of an ensemble.
What Springsteen is trying to do on "The River" is done in microcosm on Side Two. "Hungry Heart" begins: "Got a wife in Baltimore Jack/I went out for a ride and I never came back." It's fun but establishes loneliness. "Out in the Street" follows, in which a single working man can only be himself on the pavement parade. I work five days a week, girl Loading crates down on the dock I take my hard-earned money And meet my girl down on the block . . . When I'm out in the street I walk the way I wanna Walk
In "Crush on You" he meets a girl, "a walking, talking reason to live." He dates her and finds resistance from the world in "You Can Look (But You Better Not Touch)," makes up his mind to marry an unwed mother in "I Wanna Marry You," and then wonders how he got so tied down so early in "The River" the title song which ends, "Down to the river we ride." Well plotted, circular.
"Heart" is fun; "Crush on You" is fast and loose and a real teen dream. "I wanna Marry You" is a very adult composition of compromises and capitulation. But "You Can Look" is dismissable; "The River," despite one crystal passage evoking lost innocence, is too artlessly written; and "Out in the Street," from Springsteen, is redundant. His concerns are interesting, but overstated, as if Springsteen had not yet internalized them. As a result on some songs the lyrics are graceless, which is unthinkable considering Springsteen's track record.
At his best, he writes and sings with pure passion, with what was once called soul. His statements about society, although important and true, do not hold the power to move people with the same awesome effect and to the same ends as his evocations of love release and satisfaction. He reached an epiphany in "Backstreets" on the "Bold to Run" album and he does it again twice on "The River,"
"Fade Away" is a simple song of a man who realizes that a love is lost, that you don't get that many chances, that love and life are struggles and that victory is not inevitable. Springsteen's singing, and the familiarity of his situation, make the song stunning, unsettling. Listen to this in the right mood and you will find a catch in your throat.
Listen to "Drive All Nigth" any time and you will be moved unspeakably. Like "Sherry Darling," it is another song written for but not included on the somber "Darknessc album. It has Bruce's most impassioned vocal, most inventive lyrics. I would drive all night again just to buy you some shoes And to taste your tender charms.
Low-rent laughable and letter-perfect. Drive all night again -- he's done it before: Here is need, both economic and emotional, stated more plainly and effectively than on any of his tract tunes or his love ballads. It's a song about clinging to a lover in the teeth of danger and desperation. It's a triumph of love and sex and everythiing that doesn't cost money over isolation and desolation and whatever kind of poverty one might face. This has been the power of Springsteen all along.
Springsteen is now a celebrity, forcibly removed from the life that was much of his inspiration. He has tried through memory and imagination to be defined and awaken another world. His friends, relations, acquaintances are having problems with a life in which Springsteen might otherwise have been mired, and he is trying to help. When "The River" tries to make social statements its success is spotty. When springsteen unloads his burden of self-conciousness and just lets go, the album soars. These songs come from the artist according to his ability. They should go to each according too his needs.