The Boss, Bruce Springsteen, is rightly lauded for his incredible penmanship when writing his songs. Nobody can accurately ascertain the want and will of the everyman as Springsteen can. He approaches his songs with a deep authenticity that permeates every single note. But what is often overlooked about The Boss is just how much his unique vocal adds to that. Below, we’re revisiting Springsteen’s landmark single ‘The River’ through his isolated vocal track.
The song, originally released as part of The River album in 1980, was composed by Springsteen a year prior with the E Street band and then released it as a single in May of 1981. Recorded at The Power Station in New York City, Springsteen cited the track’s inspiration as “my brother-in-law and my sister,” when he first performed the song live in 1979. In the isolated vocal, we can hear every single emotion in it.
Inspired by his familial connections (something confirmed by Springsteen in his 2016 autobiography), the song allows Springsteen to pull off his neatest trick: connection. The singer is able to connect with humanity unlike any other singer of his generation, the songs he sang were as gritty and real as the dirt under your fingernails. In ‘The River’, the singer takes on the idea of life being set out for you too quickly.
A piece of classic heartland rock, Springsteen not only bemoans the quick wedding that awaited his protagonist but the failing economy too. It was music to the ears of a struggling working-class in America. What made Springsteen standout from the rest when approaching the subject of classism was that Springsteen never patronised his audience or his protagonists. He recognised their lives as equally as vital as the one he was living on tour, if not more so.
The song was also one of three on the record, including ‘Stolen Car’ and ‘Wreck on the Highway’, which hinted at the direction Springsteen was taking his songwriting. Nebraska would prove to be an album imbued with a collective hopelessness that was far-reaching in those years. It’s part of what makes the song and the album The River as well as Nebraska, so vitally important today.
Though the isolated vocal is far from clean, in fact, it can irritate a little, it does have an honest dynamism that feels akin to what made Springsteen so loved in the first place. There are no grand notes, no lullaby trills or run-offs—Springsteen is well aware of the instrument he was given. Instead, he delivers straight from the heart, singing his poetry like a renaissance bard who’s just finished a shift at the steel mill.
Undoubtedly, there’ is a sense of hopelessness in the song, Springsteen himself said that, but what he didn’t say is that there is still beauty in that feeling of being adrift. In fact, it’s almost like freedom itself. Listen below to Bruce Springsteen’s spine-tingling isolated vocals on ‘The River’.