Written by Chris Osifchin
Any time I hear the opening piano line of Bruce Springsteen’s “Thunder Road” I get the chills. I’m instantly transported to that long summer’s night; I’m in my imaginary Chevy muscle car and almost nothing can take me out of that moment. This is a moment that makes music matter. It places me in space and time. It moves me physically, mentally, emotionally, almost literally. There’s nothing more exhilarating than when music takes over, transfixes me on a moment, makes me reflect, and look forward and back, in and out, over and under, and finally leaves me to wrestle with words and sounds and the emotional melancholy that usually follows a departure from some of my favorite, meaningful worlds.
Bruce Springsteen has spent his entire adult life wrestling with these imagined worlds to bring us some wonderfully crafted pop tunes, ballads, party music, even rock ‘n’ roll opera. But while Born to Run and Darkness on the Edge of Town represented grand, sweeping epics, by the time Bruce hit age 30 his mind began to move away from the epic rock ‘n’ roll poetry of his breakthrough albums and turn inward to more, in his words, “adult” ideas.
It is here that Thom Zimny’s HBO documentary The Ties That Bind begins, with Bruce reflecting on his imagined worlds and how to mesh them with new ideas when it came time to write album number five, The River. The documentary provides remarkable insight into Springsteen’s creative process for the album, more than anything else, and features some beautiful acoustic takes of songs from the album. It is an intimate, organic look inside the mind of a rock ‘n’ roll maestro in his own backyard, literally.
As laid out by Zimny and Bruce himself, The River was an important step in Springsteen’s evolution as a songwriter. The Ties That Bind works to show how important it was to Springsteen to begin engaging with new ideas as he grew older. Drummer Max Weinberg was the first member of the E Street Band to get married, and this event pushed Springsteen to think about life and the future in a different way. At one point he says about being 30, “You have a clock that’s ticking, you’re definitely operating in the adult world.”
Just like the Bruce classics, The Ties That Bind feels like an embodiment of Bruce’s imagined worlds. Not only has the man created these worlds in words and sound, but they truly are living things. You can feel it throughout the documentary. His characters practically exist. But Springsteen notes how he struggled with the creative life. Zimny brings to light a part of Bruce that we don’t often get to see – the man behind the music.
It’s a poignant bit of humanization by Zimny to see that Bruce Springsteen, on top of the world in 1980, was dealing with personal strife and the same big questions that many of his listeners struggle with too. As Bruce puts it, he wanted to be an active part of the world and not just live in his own creations. At the same time, he knew his next record needed a strong identity.
As a songwriter, Springsteen’s identity was already there. Shifting, maybe, but The River doesn’t stray too far from his abilities. As a showman, the identity was rock solid. Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band put on one of the best live shows in the business and still do to this day. The album was truly an “in-between” moment for Bruce, as he wanted to capture the feel of his live shows in one album, but stay true to the new ideas that were impacting his mental space. It was the combination of the two that ended up bringing the album to life.
It’s fitting that the documentary was sit down interview style and the versions of the songs included were mostly acoustic. The simple reflections allowed Springsteen and Zimny room to let the album soak into the viewer’s head slowly, but surely over the course of an hour. With a tremendous amount of insight into The River, The Ties That Bind proves to be a worthy piece for any Bruce fan’s viewing, or anyone interested in the craft of songwriting.