In Hear This, The A.V. Club writers sing the praises of songs they know well. This week, in honor of Car Seat Headrest’s new record: songs about cars.
For the first 15 years of Bruce Springsteen’s career as a Columbia recording artist, each album he made came with an origin story. Nebraska is the acoustic demo that the E Street Band couldn’t improve. Darkness On The Edge Of Town is the record that took two years to make because of prolonged legal disputes. And The River—as Springsteen has explained at every stop on his recently concluded River-centric tour—is the straightforward rock LP that he withdrew, re-conceived, and expanded after he decided that the original version cheated the larger story his body of work was starting to tell. In its single-disc incarnation as The Ties That Bind, the album combined throwback party anthems with a few songs that extended Darkness’ themes of economic insecurity and uneasy domesticity. But in its final form, The River doubles down on both the tension and release that Springsteen and the E Streeters had mastered in their live shows. It was his most “fun” record to that point, but also his most complex, mature statement on the restlessness at the heart of American life.
“Stolen Car” appears on both The Ties That Bind and The River, in very different versions. The first take has more of a full band arrangement, and some additional lyrics that flesh out the story of a man who gets married and then gradually regrets settling down. The song starts as a barroom ballad, then builds into a country-inflected mid-tempo number, reminiscent of The Band. The second take—which ends side three of The River on a haunting note—strips that arrangement to just a few instruments, played quietly, slowly, and sparingly. The final “Stolen Car” also pares down the details of its protagonist’s life, losing the specifics about where he’s from and what his wedding was like. Springsteen keeps what matters: a loveless marriage, and a lost soul who drives around town in a stolen car, hoping to get arrested.
The River completes some of the thoughts begun in Darkness On The Edge Of Town, which itself was a reframing of Born To Run’s myth-making. All three albums are filled with stories of ordinary people, who year by year realize their options are narrowing. Some of the songs on The River approach that realization with a resigned shrug, or even a wry laugh. “Stolen Car” dredges up the rage buried deep within the seemingly placid. The vehicle in question can be read as a metaphor for the life that the narrator now finds himself alienated from—the one that he worries is making his essential self “disappear.” Richard Belzer once joked about how Springsteen on stage delivers epic monologues about American life as intros for “another song about a car.” But in Springsteen’s early songs, cars represented freedom and escape, if only for one night. The “stolen car” in “Stolen Car,” on the other hand, is a trap that one man has set for himself.