Born to Run may have celebrated the 40th anniversary of its release this year, but it was a different Bruce Springsteen record that saw a box set released in its honor in 2015: The River. Titled The Ties That Bind: The River Collection, the set contains a wealth of content, including (deep breath): a remastered version of the original double album, the collection of songs that comprised Springsteen’s scrapped initial version of the album, outtakes from the recording of The River, songs that were dropped from the final tracklist, a documentary about the making of the album, two and half hours of concert footage from the 1980 tour, and footage of Springsteen and the E-Street Band rehearsing for that tour. All in all, The Ties That Bind has 52 tracks and four hours of video, not to mention a hefty coffee table book. Suffice to say, it’s quite the package.
Originally released in 1980, The River was Springsteen’s followup to Darkness on the Edge of Town, and in many ways the record came out of its predecessor. After finishing Darkness, Springsteen found that he had more to say about the themes he had addressed on the album. There were tracks that did not fit on Darkness for one reason or another, but which still needed to see the light of day. Those songs would eventually become part of the The Ties That Bind, Springsteen’s initial (but unreleased) take on The River. The Ties That Behind, however, was not what Springsteen wanted for his followup to Darkness. As the artist himself noted, “Originally [The River] was a single record. I handed it in with just one record, and I took it back because I didn’t feel it was big enough. I wanted to capture the themes I had been writing about on Darkness. I wanted to keep those characters with me and at the same time added music that made our live shows so much fun and joy for our audience.”
Springsteen spent another year writing and recording The River, adding that music to make his live show exciting. The decision proved a wise one; the record cleverly moves from barn-burning anthems to darker songs dealing with the realities of life in the working class. The combination, which in less skilled hands might have simply been jarring, instead sets a deliberately ambivalent tone that complements The River‘s themes.
Given its sheer volume of content, The River Collection presents itself as one for diehards only, but casual fans should not be intimidated by its length. The addition of The Ties That Bind provides something of an introduction to the themes and songs on The River, and the outtakes are excellent tracks in their own right, rather than leftovers dished out for hardcore fans. The River Collection gathers just about all it can from the years Springsteen worked on The River not for its own sake, but because the material from that time period is worth collecting.