The River was an incredibly important album release for Bruce Springsteen. He had critical and commercial questions to answer back then. Springsteen used the might and musicianship of the E Street band to answer those on his fifth studio album and only double album, so far.
Springsteen’s first album The Wild, The Innocent and the E Street Shuffle was back in 1973 and followed quickly by Greetings From Asbury Park NJ later the same year. Two albums later reflected on as classics, Born To Run and Darkness On The Edge Of Town followed in 1975 and 1978. The River was much anticipated and long awaited.
It’s hard to believe now but at that time the question marks over the man now known as The Boss were significant. His first two records were well received. His live shows were very popular. But those early albums didn’t sell in big numbers and he was still fighting for real prominence.
The River marked a changed approach for Bruce Springsteen
Springsteen was still a member of the next Bob Dylan club as far as the media was concerned. He wasn’t yet his own brand nor the huge success he is today. His Born To Run album broke him into the mainstream but also raised the expectations for him. And the follow up to that album wasn't as well received initially.
Springsteen himself was changing, the approach to the new album was different and prolonged. The music also took a turn in direction, not huge but notable. He wasn't yet hitting the political angle and hammering the injustices for the working people. But he was questioning the reality of the American dream.