“The River” has none of the stadium filling bombastic energy that Springsteen is usually known for, but it is easily one of his best songs.
It’s slower, and although Springsteen has built an entire career out of nostalgic Americana, this is even more wistful and lonesome than most of his other stuff.
Springsteen is also no stranger to using a harmonica, and this is one of the most effective harmonica riffs I know. It’s used sparingly enough, but really creates that nostalgic feel.
The song was written about his sister and brother-in-law, as the U.S.A went through a recession in the late 70s. It’s very much a recurring theme of his to write about the economic hardship of the blue collar American worker.
The metaphor of the river is particularly telling; the river is associated with good times and youth, and then it dries up.
The rest of the song is very much a soft rock standard. There’s some piano chords, a warm bassline, and a slow drum part.
A lot of people don’t really like his singing, but then again, millions do. I like it myself…
The song was recorded and first played live in 1979, but was only released in 1980 on the classic album of the same name. In many European countries it was released as a single in 1981.