In 1979, Bruce Springsteen turned in his fifth album to Columbia Records. It was a ten-song collection, tentatively called The Ties That Bind, after the opening track. The songs were loosely themed around relationships, played and sung in a lighter style than Springsteen had yet exhibited on album; predominant influences were Hank Williams and The Raspberries. Before the album was released though, Springsteen changed his mind and pulled it back – something he’d almost done four years earlier with Born to Run. The Ties That Bind has remained a tantalizing legend ever since, second only to the rumored “Electric Nebraska” album as a fan obsession.
Springsteen, now 66, is less dour than ever. In recent years he’s increased his output while at the same time opening his (immense) vaults of unreleased material. 2010 saw the release of The Promise, another collection of pop songs that were shelved in favor of Darkness on the Edge of Town. The newly released Ties That Bind shows alternate-history Springsteen is by no means second-best – these sets represent a road not taken, different but just as satisfying. (2009’s underrated Working on a Dream provides another key to the alternate Springsteen – glorious pop symphonies that owe more to Phil Spector and Roy Orbison than Steinbeck and Faulkner.) Springsteen’s bandmate Steven Van Zandt has long complained that Springsteen held back his best material. Considered with The Promise, The Ties That Bind proves the point.
I should point out that The Ties That Bind is currently only available as part of “The River Collection,” which includes the full 2014 remaster of that album, along with 22 outtakes (10 of which have also appeared on either the Tracks collection or The Essential Bruce Springsteen), three hours of live video footage, and a new one-hour Tom Zimny documentary on the making of The River. The Promise was originally released in the same manner, and later became available as a stand-alone album; I expect something similar here. It will be awhile before I digest the outtakes and videos (some of those sound like nothing else in the Springsteen catalog); for now, I’ve got the titular lost masterpiece on repeat.
The Ties That Bind kicks things off, like it does on The River, in more elaborate form. The guitar is a bit more jangly than we’re used to (think The Byrds), with an overdubbed counterpoint harmony line. The vocal harmonies are more layered as well. Track two is Cindy, a musical homage to Buddy Holly, although the song’s narrator doesn’t share Holly’s optimism. Hungry Heart follows; the original version was sped up slightly to raise the pitch, and it became Springsteen’s first top-ten single. This version is almost identical, just a bit lower (it’s interesting to compare them side-by-side.) As the most obviously pop-friendly track on The River, it sits more comfortably on The Ties That Bind, and at a lower pitch it feels less uptight (the bitter humor of the lyric, about a father who abandoned his family when he “took a wrong turn and…just kept goin'” plays better in this setting, as well.) Stolen Car is the fourth track, similar to its incarnation on Tracks. It would slow down when Springsteen re-cast it for The River, replacing the lead piano line with strummed acoustic guitar. Here, it’s the third musically upbeat song in a row to feature a downbeat lyric (the narrator drowns himself in a river), something more characteristic of country music than rock or pop. The album side finishes with track five, Be True. Again, this song appeared on Tracks, although the vocal and piano in this version are much further back in the mix (I prefer this sound, more organic and less insistent than the Born in the U.S.A. style Springsteen is best known for.)
Side two opens with The River, practically unchanged from the version that anchors the album of the same name. It’s clear why Springsteen ended up building a double album around it – the song is huge, upending the tonal balance of The Ties That Bind. The opening harmonica is a plaintive echo of the opening from Thunder Road, two albums ago. The hope from that song has dead-ended: “Is a dream a lie if it don’t come true, or is it something worse?” One can argue about whether the conceptual trilogy of Born to Run/Darkness on the Edge of Town/The River is hogwash, but this song in its original context shows why the idea must have been so appealing to Springsteen.
You Can Look (But You Better Not Touch) is the same rockabilly version that Springsteen played on the Tunnel of Love Express Tour. I like the emphasis this one gives to “She didn’t get me excited she just made me feel mean,” one of Springsteen’s most packed phrases (it foreshadows the writing he’d do on Nebraska.) The side’s third track is The Price You Pay, with a different middle verse from the familiar version (they both work to the same purpose.) It’s the least relationship-themed song on the album, more of a summing-up, which explains its position on side four of The River. I Wanna Marry You also sounds much like it does on The River, just more embellished – the deep, swooning harmonies Springsteen sings with himself are pure bliss. Critical biographer Clinton Heylin calls this “one of his least convincing songs,” which is nonsense – the singer is the Springsteen archetype, yearning to live the contented life he’d grown up to expect, defeated but giving things a shot anyway. The album closes with Loose End, similar to the more bombastic version on Tracks. It’s about lovers who discover that what they have isn’t close to enough (“…little by little we choked out all the life that our love could hold”), but neither is willing to make the first move to end the misery.
Final tally: Ten songs, Love – 3, Loose Ends – 6, and one suicide. 39 minutes of the tastiest pop confection Springsteen has ever produced.