Bruce Springsteen, "The Ties That Bind: The River Collection" (Columbia)

Springsteen's 1980 release, "The River," was a double album twice as long as anything he'd released previously, and the songwriting binge leading up to it was just as epic. He wrote 95 songs and recorded them with an acoustic guitar and beat box at a New Jersey farmhouse, then knocked out 104 recordings with the E Street Band. Only 20 made the album, which raises intriguing questions about what was left out and why. This four-CD, three-DVD boxed set — which includes a remastered edition of the album — provides a few clues.

As he turned 30, Springsteen began investigating pre-rock influences, particularly the mature themes that permeated classic country music. After the youthful adventures and dreams of escape so vividly described in his early albums, the singer had begun exploring darker, more adult subjects in "Darkness on the Edge of Town" (1978), and slipping inside the heads of working-class narrators in a series of ballads that would shape "The River."

But Springsteen went into the sessions nagged by the notion that his studio recordings still didn't match the power of his live performances. He recorded a more downcast 10-song version of "The River," then thought better of it and kept working. "The Ties That Bind" includes that version, which contains slightly different versions of seven songs that wound up on the finished release and three that didn't make the cut, including one of his best songs from the era, "Be True." It's a brisk yet troubled investigation of a theme that obsessed Springsteen on "The River": the struggle to not just find love but to maintain it in the face of mounting responsibilities and soul-sapping turns of fate.

The fun starts with two discs of outtakes, including 11 songs that have previously surfaced, including the rampaging "Roulette," which finds Springsteen approximating the Clash's fury in the wake of the Three Mile Island nuclear disaster. For Springsteen fans, the disc of 11 previously unreleased outtakes is the main reason to investigate this pricey collection, and it contains a first-rate piece of psychodrama in "Meet Me in the City." Ostensibly a close cousin to "Out in the Streets," a thinly written party song that landed on the finished version of "The River," this outtake finds the singer indicting himself for "feeling no pain" and wondering what's wrong with his head.

"The Man Who Got Away" is another tale of a man on the run — but from what? Himself? The breathless pace gives it the feel of a movie chase scene that ends badly for the narrator. A more melancholy mood is struck by the girl-group harmonies of the ballad "The Time That Never Was" and the chiming "Party Lights," which should have been released as a single. "Chain Lightning" blows off all that regret with a "Peter Gunn"-style bass line that oozes lust.

Greg Kot, Chicago Tribune