It took Bruce Springsteen 14 months to make Born To Run. It took him 10 months to make Darkness On The Edge of Town, and that was without the year-long break in the middle where he was trapped in a lawsuit and wasn’t allowed to record a new record. This is why Springsteen deliberately tried to make the recording of his fifth record go much smoother than its predecessors. He wrote songs in advance, he rehearsed the E Street Band at his home rehearsal studio (a barn adjacent to an old farmhouse, surrounded by acres and acres of old farmland). But it would still end up taking him a year-and-a-half to make the record. Along the way he would create two single-album versions of the record, one getting as far as being submitted to the record company before Bruce pulled it back. The final product would be two records, twenty songs, and come out almost two years after he started working on it.
The deluxe box set that’s being released 35 years later–The Ties That Bind: The River Collection — has taken on a big job. It’s not just collecting outtakes and some photos of the band in the studio and a remastered version of the record. Rather, it’s trying to take fans into the process of recording the album. So you get that original version of the album on a CD in a slipcase that looks like the master tape that got shipped off to Columbia. You get the most recent (2014) remaster of “The River,” in tiny sleeves and discs that match the label that would have been on the vinyl record if you’d bought it back then. You get all of the outtakes that are worth having, even if the cream of that crop appeared on the Tracks anthology of unreleased material that came out in 1998. You could argue that it is duplicative and forcing people to buy music again, but it’s a retrospective box set and it would have been silly to not have all of the material from that time period in one place.
The outtakes that you haven’t heard are interesting and worth hearing at least once. Some are worth hearing more than that, others you will likely never listen to again. There was some modern-day repair work done to some for sure. This isn’t the first time Bruce has done this on a box set and it’s certainly within his purview to do so, but it would just be nice if they documented what was done on what song so people who care about these things can make note of it. (The people who care about these things are the kind of people who are happy to drop $130 on a box set right before the gift-buying winter holiday season, so it would not be amiss to cater to them just a tiny bit.) The good news is, thanks to the magic of studio logs, we know with reasonable certainty that there are no glaring omissions left in the vault somewhere.
In previous years, when discussing the possibility of a box set around “The River,” Springsteen manager Jon Landau would mention that it might be difficult to do a comprehensive deluxe package because they did not have the kind of rare assets available that they did for Born To Run and Darkness On The Edge of Town. This was solved by filming a brand-new documentary for the box set, with an in-depth interview with Bruce where he talks about the process of making the record with fairly brutal honesty. It would have been great to get perspectives from people like Steve Van Zandt and Jon Landau, who co-produced the record with Bruce, or from the long-suffering members of the E Street Band who were recording 9 takes of, say, “Ramrod,” but the director, Thom Zimny, said it was a deliberate choice.
Accompanying the documentary are two additional video assets. The first is 20 minutes of pre-tour rehearsal footage with the band in stage clothes, practicing the setlist with tour sound and lights. There are some precious moments in there, it’s only five songs, and it’s fun to match it up with the main event: pro-shot footage of an almost-complete concert from November of 1980, in Tempe, Arizona. This is the holy grail, the much-rumored but never unearthed or traded in underground circles footage of almost a complete concert, with sound quality to match.
The physical package of the thing is impressive but not amazing. It’s hard to beat the precedent set by the Darkness On The Edge of Town box set, which won a Grammy award for packaging. Here, the physical media is contained in a folder that looks like a road case, which is meant to represent the roadcase that the hundreds and hundreds of master tapes were locked up in each night after every recording session. (It was referred to as “The Bruce Springsteen Memorial Couch” and the “Houdini Box.”) There’s also a slim paperback folio that’s meant to be a replica of one of the lyric notebooks Springsteen used for the project. You know it’s actually a replica because the name field reads “Bossenheimer Jones” and the subject field reads “Your Mama,” when either of those elements could have just been photoshopped out.
Finally, there’s a hardcover coffee-table style book containing 200 or so rare or never-seen-before photos of the band in the recording studio, as well as outtakes shot for the album promotion. (No one looks happy in the studio photos; everyone looks thrilled in the promotional shots.) There’s also an essay by Mikal Gilmore, who covered Springsteen in this period for Rolling Stone and other publications. It does rework things he’s written before, so some of it will seem familiar. Finally, there’s also an essay from Mr. Springsteen–but it’s the same essay he wrote about the record in Songs, his lyric anthology from a few years back which he updated with one paragraph saying, “Looking back it pretty much says it all,” which might be true, and yes, there is a brand new documentary, but this just seems a little bit skimpy considering that this is a $130 box set.
What would have definitely elevated the box set in the price:value ratio would have been the inclusion of a live audio disc of a River-era tour show. People can’t sit down and watch a concert video on a regular basis, but they can burn a CD to their iPod or pop it into a car stereo. Given that the full audio of the Tempe show exists it would have made sense to include that as part of the box set (and at the very least it should be released as part of Springsteen’s Live Archive Project).
Where the box set succeeds is in creating a full picture of the process around the recording of the album, which was a lofty goal, and one the organization did not need to take on. It’s a tribute to Bruce that he was willing to sit for an in-depth documentary and dig back into what’s clear are still some reasonably painful memories of a lengthy recording session. One can only hope that similar plans are in the works for upcoming anniversaries of Born In The USA and Tunnel of Love.