Another superb boxed set detailing the work and activities surrounding the creation of a Bruce Springsteen album, The Ties That Bind: The River Collection, out today from Columbia, is a primer on transition for Springsteen in 1979 and '80 during the recording of The River. The story here is one of introspection and ambition, following artistic instincts and beginning a search for a new voice, one that will ultimately serve Springsteen well as a chronicler of the American milieu.

The River was borne from inner-conflict—a desire to produce vibrant, non-compromised rock 'n' roll at a time when American musical culture was swept up in disco and its attendant hedonism and place alongside it, a sober view of collapsed American dreams. Upon release, it made for curious juxtapositions, "Ramrod" and "The River," "Independence Day" and "Out in the Street"—songs with little shared DNA—eliminated the types of musical throughlines that defined Springsteen's work on Darkness on the Edge of Town and Born to Run.

Ties That Bind successfully plots the road map of Springsteen's journey from observer and celebrant to participant, a writer looking to connect with his audience through universal truths that were at times dire and other times exuberant. We hear it in the outtakes, many of them upbeat rockers; see it in the footage from a ferociously intense November 1980 performance; and in Springsteen's explanation of his ambitions in Thom Zimny's hourlong documentary for HBO.

Zimny had little footage to work with in creating the latest Springsteen documentary, a film about the creation of his 1980 album The River. The result is a film composed largely of Springsteen seated with an acoustic guitar at home, remembering how the album came together—a meshing of disparate parts that started as the single disc Ties That Bind and ultimately married dual identity as storytelling balladeer and throwback rock & roller.

The documentary makes two key points: Springsteen was shifting to a first-person singular approach in his songwriting and using his two producers Steven Van Zandt and Jon Landau (pictured to Bruce's left in Joel Bernstein's in-studio shot above) to find a middle ground between rough (Van Zandt's forte) and the polished (Landau's side of the coin). It helps explain why The River, more than any other Springsteen album, feels a collection of isolated songs rather than a united whole.

The back story: Springsteen turned in to Columbia Records a 10-song single album in 1979 and quickly took it back, saying it lacked unity. Seven of that album's songs would be released in October 1980 as part of The River, now a two-LP, 20 song set, which saw additions of landmark songs such as “Point Blank,” “Drive All Night” and “Jackson Cage.”

As Mikal Gilmore explains in his smart liner notes, "Moods would rise and fall; people and their destinies seemed to move from song to song; the band thrashed and then braided dream textures. Sometimes big beats covered pain or ruses—which is to say, what sounded cheerful might have more ambiguous undercurrents.

“At a point, the album’s story seems to breaks in two, like life itself sometimes does: Part of the story is about dreams of pleasure, lightheartedness, love, family and accountability. As Springsteen says, you rock, and that elation amounts to a hope—a guarded hope—that you’ve found your way: you’ve accepted love and commitment; you’re bound to it as a godsend. In its later movements, though, the double album achieved its most breathtaking effect.” He then goes on to examine Springsteen's use of cars as metaphors, dissecting “Wreck on the Highway” and its message of “Wrap your arms around life and love.”

The 22 bonus tracks—11 of which have never been released—generally reveal Springsteen's desire to pen a rave-up rooted in R&B or rockabilly, a nod to Sam & Dave, Mitch Ryder, Gary U.S. Bonds or Wilson Pickett. He produced some gems, "Roulette" chef among them, but never quite nailed an ultimate bar-band anthem. "I Want to Be Where the Bands Are" and "Dollhouse" come close; among the newly unearthed tracks, “Little White Lies” and “Stray Bullet” provide a blueprint for his future work, “The Man Who Got Away” encapsulates where he had been.

Like the Born to Run and Darkness boxed sets, Ties That Bind includes an electrifying concert film, this one coming from Tempe, Ariz., in November 1980, the day after the presidential election of Ronald Reagan. It's an intense performance, a killer one-two opening of "Born to Run and "Prove It All Night" extended with a defiant Springsteen guitar solo. He weaves the energetic songs of The River seamlessly into the set, "Jackson County" and “Two Hearts” feeling as lived in as “The Promised Land” and “Tenth Avenue Freeze Out.” It's as strong a Springsteen performance as one will ever find on film, a new gold standard for future set.

Obviously the target audience for this $100 set are the fans who helped Columbia C36855 go platinum in two months (it's up to 5X platinum today) at the end of 1980. While The Promise, a collection of songs cut, deservedly so, from Darkness, exposed Springsteen's ability to decide between A and B level materials, Ties That Bind reveals a man trying on new skin and the decision about what feels good is more about comfort than fit.

Photos, above and top pf page by Joel Bernstein; preview portrait by David Gahr