Back in 1979, Bruce Springsteen was all set to release the follow-up to the previous year's Darkness on the Edge of Town. After legal problems made the wait between that album and its predecessor, the breakthrough Born to Run, a long three years – an eternity in the '70s – Springsteen was more than ready to get back into the studio.

He had written and recorded hundreds of songs for Darkness and its follow-up, which was going to be called The Ties That Bind. The single-record project, like the album before it, took on a somber tone, as Springsteen, approaching his 30s, explored grown-up themes like marriage and responsibility. But something happened on the way to the album's release. Springsteen pulled the record and decided to revisit the project with more upbeat songs, and ended up with the double-LP epic The River in 1980 instead.

The Ties That Bind: The River Collection -- a box set that gathers 52 songs from the sessions on four CDs, as well as three DVDs of video content from the era -- tells the story of how one of music's most determined artists scrapped a great album and replaced it with an even better one. Lengthening the 10-song The Ties That Bind made the double-LP The River a more expansive record, and not just in physical size. By broadening his scope, Springsteen guaranteed The River wouldn't be just Darkness on the Edge of Town Part II.

The original Ties That Bind -- collected here in its entirety and made up of some songs that ended up on The River, some that didn't and some that did in different versions -- scales back the breadth of the two-record edition, tightening some of the loose ends and in some ways laying a more solid foundation for the songs. But The River works better as narrative and as the next step in Springsteen's evolution as one of rock's most powerful songwriters.

For further proof as to just how prolific and consistent he was during this period, check out the 22 outtakes from the album's sessions. Several ended up as B-sides, bonus tracks and songs on 1998's odds-and-ends box set Tracks, but they take on new perspective in this light, not only revealing that Springsteen had enough material for a four-LP set but also how differently The River might have sounded with some alterations.

Like 2010's The Promise, which gathered a ton of Darkness on the Edge of Town leftovers, The Ties That Bind: The River Collection is more rewarding if you're familiar with the original material. Songs like "Meet Me in the City," "Roulette," "Where the Bands Are," "Living on the Edge of the World" and "Held Up Without a Gun" are great songs that fit into The River's concept, but what would they replace? It's tough to say.

In the end, The River was the album Springsteen needed to make at that time. Not The Ties That Bind or any other record filled with the session songs found on this box. But the set uncovers an alternate history that bridges Springsteen's first (his most significant) and second (his most commercially successful) decades. Would it have steered him away from Nebraska and in turn the superstar-making behemoth Born in the U.S.A.? Probably not, but this mammoth, exhaustive and terrific collection explores the possibilities.

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