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[The song] is concerned with those [relationship] ideas: that if you don’t connect yourself with your family and to the world, you feel like you’re disappearing, fading away. I felt like that for a very, very long time. Growing up, I felt invisible.

This one is from Springsteen’s fifth studio album, the sprawling, two-disc The River, released in 1980. It was his first #1 album, and spawned his first top 10 single, Hungry Heart, a song very much in the tradition of big stadium rousers like Born to Run, Thunder Road, Dancing in the Dark, and so many others he’s gifted us. In a lot of ways it was typical Springsteen as we’d come to know him, no small thing to be sure, but buried inside were a number of album cuts that were greeted with little fanfare at the time, but pointed the way to a more mature, introspective, and thoughtful style of songwriting that would soon characterize his finest work, even if later, more raucous numbers like the badly misunderstood Born in The USA still grabbed all the attention.

The River was released in a time of pronounced economic recession, when a generally unsettled and pessimistic pre-Reagan frame of mind was the zeitgeist, which apparently struck a chord within Springsteen, who’d always had it in him anyway, from the very start (listen to Meeting Across the River off of Born to Run). In the songs of The River, broken hearts, shattered dreams, lost hope, and loneliness were starting to come to the fore, as exemplified by today’s selection, which explored such themes to honestly devastating effect.

Stolen Cars would be one of my nominations for saddest song of the 20th century. Using, as he so often does, autos as a central emotional metaphor, he tells a story of the soul-destroying impact of falling out of love, of two people simply ceasing to feel anything for each other any more within a dead marriage that refuses to die. It kills me. I lose it every time his wife describes how reading his old love letters made her feel a hundred years old. Imagine hearing that. Imagine that lost and lonely feeling of coming unmoored from everything upon which you once built your life, and realizing that you were asleep at the wheel as it happened little by little, nobody’s fault, maybe, it happens, but now it’s over. It’s just so over.

What then?

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