“We drove on, fueled not by the future but by a past we could never touch.”
So recounts Bruce Springsteen during The Time That Never Was, one of the many unearthed gems that make up The Ties That Bind — The River Collection, the third and finest in a series of boxed set re-examinations of The Boss’s most pivotal albums. That’s a telling line in many ways as Springsteen’s early songs were consumed with the restlessness of youth and how it led into an uncertain and often darker adulthood.
The original 1980 double-LP The River, which takes up two of the seven discs on The Ties That Bind, instigated that search with steadfast confidence. On the surface, the record was full of celebratory rockers that represented a thematically lighter and musically looser slant than the music from 1978’s Darkness on the Edge of Town, the album that slammed the door shut on Springsteen’s youth. Out in the Street, You Can Look (But You Better Not Touch), Hungry Heart, Sherry Darling, Cadillac Ranch, Ramrod, Crush on You and more — The Boss had fashioned enough rock ’n’ roll cheer during these sessions to make The River sound like a frat party.
But there was a different darkness from different outskirts pervading The River. You heard it in such somber remembrances as Independence Day, The River, Point Blank, Stolen Car, and the piece de resistance finale, Wreck on the Highway, whose shattered images disturb, even from a seemingly safe distance.
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That, of course, tells only what we already know. The Ties That Bind is a remarkable broadening of The River. The remainder of its considerable contents include the original single-disc version of the record yanked from release by Springsteen, complete with tunes like Be True that would surface later only as B-sides, and a full disc of outtakes.
The latter is the real find. Some of its contents have surfaced through the years on bootlegs, B-sides and other boxed sets (most notably, 1998’s Tracks), but their inclusion on The Ties That Bind nicely fleshes out the original record’s balance, as in the pairing of the boardwalk instrumental Paradise by the C with the anthemic pop romance of Mary Lou.
But the rarities — the pensive, piano-led Night Fire, the turbulent Chain Lightning (a precursor of sorts to State Trooper from 1982’s Nebraska) and the Byrds-like Party Lights — are masterful works representing the spirits of E Street past. Toss in three DVDs that encompass an inexhaustible concert from Tempe, Ariz., in 1980 and a full documentary, and you have a powerfully insightful look into Springsteen’s ascension into megastardom.
From familiar hits to hidden treasures, The Ties That Bind offers joyride on a River truly gone wild.