Death, as a topic, was no stranger to Bruce Springsteen by the time he recorded his fifth album, 1980's The River. Already on his first album, 1973's Greetings from Asbury Park, NJ, death features prominently on at least two tracks. But "Wreck on the Highway," The River's final song, dispenses with the earlier romantic view of death for a much more matter-of-fact take on the subject, an almost (but not quite) documentarian viewpoint.
Compare and contrast the opening lines to the earlier songs:
The ragamuffin gunner is returnin' home like a hungry runaway
Princess cards she sends me with her regards
Barroom eyes shine vacancy, to see her you gotta look hard
Last night I was out driving
Coming home at the end of the working day
I was riding alone through the drizzling rain
On a deserted stretch of a county two-lane
When I came upon a wreck on the highway
The flowery, poetic language is replaced by flat, largely monosyllabic words. The scene is set with perfect clarity but with nothing extra—it is what it is.
There was blood and glass all over
And there was nobody there but me
As the rain tumbled down hard and cold
I seen a young man lying by the side of the road
He cried Mister, won't you help me please
In addition to being heartbreaking and horrifying, the ambiguity of the writing right here is especially powerful: is the narrator hit by the horrible scene before him, by this sight of this terribly injured driver in need of help and his own inability to provide the kind of assistance so clearly required, by the fact that this guy needs help and it’s up to the narrator, since he’s the only one on this lonesome road? Or when he says there was nobody there but him, does he mean he looks at the injured driver and sees himself?
A brief instrumental interlude follows, the move into the relative minor imbuing the section with an extra haunting, melancholy feel, as if any additional push in that direction were needed.
An ambulance finally came and took him to Riverside
I watched as they drove him away
And I thought of a girlfriend or a young wife
And a state trooper knocking in the middle of the night
To say your baby died in a wreck on the highway
Why? Why’s he think this? Why’s he imagine the state trooper delivering that news? Did the young man die during the instrumental break? Was it clear he was going to die? Were his injuries so severe there was little chance of his pulling through? Is the narrator assuming the worst or is he simply imagining it? Is it all in his head? And can it possibly be mere coincidence that the name of the album and the name of the hospital are so clearly related?
Sometimes I sit up in the darkness
And I watch my baby as she sleeps
Then I climb in bed and I hold her tight
I just lay there awake in the middle of the night
Thinking 'bout the wreck on the highway
That’s an amazing ending in and of itself, but taken in the context of Springsteen’s other album closers, a huge departure. His first album had closed with desperate bravado against a slinky rock beat, and his next two with romantic longings set to lush, sometimes jazzy, sometimes progressive music. His fourth album, often considered (justifiably) his first fully adult collection, ended on a howl of defiance and fierce statement of purpose.
And then we come to this. His narrator, awake in the middle of the night, tormented by what he’d seen and what he fears is to come in his own future, alone even as he's holding his loved one. In his earlier songs the narrator's witnessed a spectacularly public death and tried to save a girlfriend from suicide. Here there's nothing quite so obviously dramatic. Instead, we're left with a narrator, isolated even when with others, quietly obsessed with his own mortality after being the lone witness to a single car accident.
It's all mirrored by the music, which is the most country song he'd yet recorded, carried by Danny Federici's organ and Garry W. Talent's simple but melodic bassline. No sax, no guitar solos, just a bit of quiet piano and some restrained guitar arpeggios.
A final whispered "oh," and the song's over.
Only then it's not. After a brief false ending, the instrumental middle section comes back, carried mainly by the bass, repeating until it fades out, a strange, atypical and utterly effective ending.