Bruce Springsteen's The River, ranked track by track

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The Boss in Cleveland earlier this week.

The Boss is taking his worldwide legion of devotees down to The River this year, performing that 1980 double album in full at every stop along a 50-date global jaunt that will take him into at least July.

The 20-song set, which features Bruce Springsteen’s first Billboard top-five hit “Hungry Heart,” is his back catalogue's most recent recipient of the box-set treatment. The three-CD, two-DVD The Ties That Bind: The River Collection is a fittingly expansive compilation, culling together 25 (!!!) more songs that didn’t make the final cut.

The collection includes an excellent new documentary about the record and a pro-shot concert film chronicling the Boss’s 1980 show at Arizona State University. It’s also a great excuse for Bruce to dust off the E Street Band for the first time in two years and go out on tour.

The 2016 edition of The River Tour rolls into St. Paul’s Xcel Energy Center on Monday, when fans can expect a three-hour-plus marathon comprising the musical rollercoaster that is The River, outtakes from The Ties That Bind (“Meet Me in the City” has opened every show and other cuts have popped up occasionally, though not at any of the six shows I’ve witnessed), and fan favorites like “Born to Run” and “Rosalita (Come Out Tonight).”

Hell, the Louisville gig earlier this month saw Bruce and his recently inducted Hall of Fame band blow through a whopping 35 songs, the most he’s played at any show since 1993. 

Also of note: Monday is Leap Day. The St. Paul concert will be the third time Bruce finds himself playing on the day that comes once every four years (1988 and 1996), and he sure loves him some thematic tie-ins. (Case in point: He busted out The Ghost of Tom Joad deep cut “Youngstown” for the tour debut in nearby Cleveland this week.) Don’t be surprised if Lucky Town’s “Leap of Faith” is trotted out in honor of Monday’s calendar quirk.

Of course, The River will run through the heart of the show. Its 83 minutes (more like two hours live) mix together celebratory rockers, heartbreaking ballads, and more than a few opportunities for the Boss to scream “one, two, three, four!” at the top of his lungs.

The album was actually sequenced by Bruce to resemble an E Street Band live show, from the fist-pump-inducing opening notes of “The Ties That Bind” to the final seconds of the contemplative “Wreck on the Highway.” How do these 20 songs fare against one another? Keep reading for this hopeless fanatic’s The River Power Rankings!

20. “Crush on You”

This side-two cut was never intended to be anything more than a lighthearted party-starter, so it’s difficult to knock it too much. “Crush on You” has some of Bruce’s goofiest lyrics (“She makes the Venus de Milo look like she’s got no style”), perhaps to a fault. In the new box set’s documentary, the 66-year-old wonders aloud if he should’ve replaced it with the outtake “Roulette.” I would’ve suggested “Take 'Em as They Come” or “Stray Bullet,” but Bruce knows best.

19. “I Wanna Marry You”

Before the worldwide superstardom, I guess Bruce wanted to make a bid for one of those songs you always hear at weddings. He’s said that “I Wanna Marry You” was the result of imagining a whole life with a girl that passed him by on the sidewalk. If you move the perspectives around to avoid the brother-sister thing, it’s fun to imagine this girl pushing a baby carriage down the street as the same one who gets pregnant one song later in “The River.”

18. “I’m a Rocker”

One of three rockers in the whole second half of the album, “I’m a Rocker” is something of a theme song for Bruce. He professes himself as greater than James Bond and Batman, which, after seeing him in concert, is hard to argue with.

17. “Point Blank”

Bruce mourns the loss of spark in an ex-girlfriend’s life in the opening number of side three, one of the jazziest pieces he’s ever put to record. The “I was gonna be your Romeo and you were gonna be my Juliet” verse was also used on outtake “Party Lights,” albeit in a much different tone. Meanwhile, the call-and-response between Bruce’s lyrics and Roy Bittan’s piano in the chorus is one of the highlights of the whole album.

16. “Cadillac Ranch”

Somehow, this rousing barnburner following the slow-burn suite of “I Wanna Marry You,” “The River,” and “Point Blank” doesn’t sound jarring at all. Unsurprisingly, Bruce sure likes when the ladies wear blue jeans (“Hey little darling with the blue jeans on”), which we’ll see more of later. If “Pink Cadillac” was a euphemism for a vagina, I don’t want to know the true meaning of this one.

15. “Fade Away”

This is one of E Street Band guitarist Steven Van Zandt’s favorite songs by his Boss, pretty much the only reason it was played live even a handful of times in the intervening years between River tours.  “Fade Away” was the only single besides “Hungry Heart” released from the album in the U.S. It reached No. 14 on the Billboard Mainstream Rock chart, while B-side “Be True” got to No. 42.

14. “Sherry Darling”

The second song on The River one hits home for anybody who can’t stand the “package deal” of a significant other’s parents. “Sherry Darling” is one of the funniest songs in the Bruce canon, detailing how Bruce drives his girlfriend’s yappin’ mama to the unemployment agency every Monday morning and, when she talks too much, makes her take the subway back to the ghetto. Definitely worth a Bruce laugh or two

13. “Hungry Heart”

Considering how iconic a song “Born to Run” is, it’s strange to think how much bigger “Hungry Heart” was upon its release. The most upbeat song about abandoning one’s family ever written peaked at No. 5 in both the U.S. and Canada, while Bruce’s signature song only got as high as No. 23 stateside and didn’t chart up north. The 1980 River tour was Bruce’s first to take place mostly in arenas, and “Hungry Heart” is at least partially to thank for that permanent graduation.

12. “Independence Day”

No, it’s not a sequel to “4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy).” Bruce has been introducing “Independence Day” in concert as the first song he ever wrote about fathers and sons, which has been a cornerstone theme for him over the past four decades. The singer’s contentious relationship with his own dad certainly informed this cut, in which neither man can understand the other.

11. “Out in the Street”

You can meet Bruce in Atlantic City, in a non-specific city, on the loose ends, down on Bluebird Street, or out on any street, really. As a song about taking off your work clothes and hitting the town, “Out in the Street” might not ring so true on a Monday in February, but it’s always a live highlight for Bruce & Co.

10. “Ramrod”

The album’s final party song has been the greatest gainer for me over the course of the current tour, its defining organ part making it impossible to get up and let my ramrod rock. There’s that denim again – “Hey, little dolly with the blue jeans on,” Bruce beckons in the opening line.

9. “You Can Look (But You Better Not Touch)”

In another 2016 live highlight, Bruce quickly turns an innocent trip to the mall for wall hangings into a late-night rendezvous at the drive-in with someone named Dirty Annie. In terms of balls-to-the-wall Springsteen rockers, you can see this one in the distance, but very few can touch it.

8. “Stolen Car”

The quietest number on The River is perhaps its heaviest lyrically, finding a man at the end of his rope. Where he once had a little house with a little girl on the edge of town, now he’s hot-wiring Cadillacs (safe to assume, right?) as a cry for help. St. Paul got the only performance of “Stolen Car” at a non-full River show since 2005 when Bruce broke it out here in 2012, to the surprise of fans in the arena and online setlist watchers alike.

7. “Drive All Night”

When you see an eight-plus-minute run time next to a Bruce tune, you expect it to be a miniature opera like “Jungleland” or “Incident on 57th Street,” complete with both hushed moments and fists-in-the-air flourishes. “Drive All Night” is pretty much all the former, making it one of the most unique – and beautiful – songs in his repertoire. You want a girl to fall for you, just tell her you’d drive through the wind and snow all night just to pick her up some new sneakers.

6. “The River”

One of Bruce’s sisters became an actress in Hollywood, while the other got pregnant in her teens. The album’s haunting title track covers the early struggles of Virginia Springsteen and her still-husband Mickey, hopefully serving as a form of contraception for the younger end of the Springsteen fanbase.

5. “Two Hearts”

The way that the last line of each verse in “Two Hearts” descends into the chorus – “I believe in the end ..." and “... My special one ...” – is one of my favorites things about any song on The River. The positive sentiment about love is also welcome, considering the bleak view on this topic in tracks like “The River” and “Stolen Car.”

4. “Jackson Cage”

This cut reeks of frustration more than almost any other song in the Bruce catalogue, finding Bruce talking to a girl who’s stuck in one of those cages on Highway 9. (Hopefully she springs from it.) The unresolved fashion in which “Jackson Cage” concludes (“The way they will turn a man into stranger / To waste away down in the Jackson Cage”) is breathtaking every time I hear it.

3. “The Ties That Bind”

There might not be a moment on The River more exhilarating than when, heading into the last chorus of “The Ties That Bind,” Bruce yells the song’s title with all of the strain he’s got in his voice box. The record’s first song also features one of Clarence Clemons’ finest saxophone solos, and is in my opinion the greatest opening number on any Springsteen album. And yes, I’m aware of “Thunder Road.”

2. “Wreck on the Highway”

It’s only natural that, after a 20-song album that begins with the liveliness of “The Ties That Bind” and captures every emotion known to man over the following 80 minutes, the loose ends are tied up with the finality of death.

The narrator is driving along when he comes upon, “A young man lying on the side of the road / Crying 'Mister, won’t you help me please?'” It was too late. The album’s gorgeous final moments find Bruce’s perspective better for having witnessed that, as he climbs into bed and holds his girl tight. Relationships – the ties that bind.

1. “The Price You Pay”

On a record full of cautionary tales and the consequences that haunt, “The Price You Pay” is a song about owning the roads you’ve taken in your life. First you learn to live with those choices, then you realize you couldn’t break away from them if you tried, and finally you fight for them.

That beautiful sentiment, combined with Bittan’s vibrant piano, Van Zandt’s ethereal harmonies, Max Weinberg’s machine-like drumming, Garry Tallent’s undeniable bass groove, and Bruce’s “tear it down and throw it away” exclamation, makes this the defining song of The River era.

Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band

When: 7:30 p.m. Monday, Feb. 29

Where: Xcel Energy Center, 175 W. Kellogg Blvd. St. Paul

Tickets: $57.50-$152.50; more info here.


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