Published Dec 04, 2015The Boss inspires no casual attitudes toward his music; you either can't stand him, or you have a voracious obsession for everything he's ever done. The box set treatments for Springsteen's greatest triumphs — Born to Run and Darkness on the Edge of Town — have so far been absolutely amazing for die-hard fans, painting pictures that reveal one of history's greatest songwriters as a maddeningly prolific mad scientist type.
The outtakes alone from these collections could have been released haphazardly and, in more cases than not, would have been near-classics anyway. The Ties That Bind: The River Collection shows a Springsteen that, after two bona fide masterworks, is somehow speeding up instead of slowing down.
First, the original. With his previous two records, Springsteen solidified his station as the everyman poet laureate, creating monolithic tragedies where hope somehow still remained at the forefront in the face of overwhelming odds. They were relatable in the sense that life, an experience that we all obviously share, is at its core a Sisyphean exercise. But the major victory of those albums is that he was able to craft something palatable from the inherent pain of it all while still confronting that yeah, shit sucks sometimes. The River still contains not only just remnants of this formula, but some of the finest examples of it. The family-rending "Independence Day," the profoundly lonesome "Stolen Car" and of course, the severed youth of the title track are among Springsteen's best work.
The best thing about The River, though, is the evolution that is completed here — as a person as well as a songwriter — in which he finally reconciled his Jersey Shakespeare persona with his rock'n'roll bandleader one. Rather than trying to force the two together, The River simply provides an environment where both can coexist. How does he follow up the heartbreaking isolation of "Stolen Car"? With "Ramrod," a song that's as much about getting laid as it is a goofy ode to a badass car. Seriously, read the lyrics; it's difficult to tell which the narrator is more into.
That ridiculous rock'n'roll was an expression of what rock'n'roll has always been — gettin' loose, gettin' laid, moving your feet — but Springsteen's signature musical muscle ensured that even songs that sounded like toss-off ditties would never meaningless. "Two Hearts" is less than three minutes long and sounds like jukebox fodder, but it's also somehow blindingly optimistic without ever being stupid. After years of pushing hope in the face of existential darkness, The River worked to prove that there was a light at the end of the tunnel. There is only one bad thing to say about it: "Hungry Heart," damn it.
The Ties That Bind also includes the long-circulated bootleg The River: Single Album (aka The Ties That Bind), which is definitely more for serious collectors, but fascinating nonetheless. Basically, Springsteen originally intended to release it as the successor to Darkness, but felt it was inadequate, so went back to work. The three songs not on the double album here — "Cindy," "Be True" and "Loose Ends" — are just as good as any song that ended up on the final track list, except for "Loose Ends," which is even better than probably half of them.
The outtakes disc (22 tracks, 12 previously unreleased) also features songs that are so good it's confusing that they never ended up on a proper release until now. Artists work in mysterious ways, of course, but songs like the loss-of-innocence rocker "Party Lights" and the flooring "Stray Bullet," with a gorgeous, tasteful solo from Clarence "Big Man" Clemons, feel like they belong as parts of something important, bigger than outtakes. "Restless Nights" is a connection between the stark Darkness and the rock'n'roll of The River, and has a guitar solo so dangerous it should be kept behind lock and key. "From Small Things (Big Things One Day Come)" is a rollicking look ahead to the stadium-sized Born In The U.S.A.
Same as its two predecessors, The Ties That Bind box set is full of songs that offer another fascinating and comprehensive glimpse into the evolution of one of history's greatest artists. The best part is that, as with The River's juxtaposed hopelessness and optimism, the box set also serves two purposes: on one hand, it's an endlessly engaging artifact for music dorks interested in an education straight from the source; on the other hand, it simply overflows with some of the best, and most enjoyable rock 'n' roll of all time. (Columbia)