It is no accident that Thunder Road opens 1975¹s Born to Run album instead of the sure-fire pop-rock appeal of the title track. Thunder Road demands patience as it unveils each layer of its dense arrangement. Roy Bittan eases into the piano intro, settling into a Bach-like chiming rhythm which is accompanied by harmonica. The production has a hazy epic distance to it. Even before Bruce Springsteen sings ³The screen door slams / Mary¹s dress waves / Like a vision she dances across the porch / as the radio plays / Roy Orbison singin¹ for the lonely / hey that¹s me and I want you only / Don¹t turn me home again / I just can¹t face myself alone again³, the listener has already been transported to a loner¹s paradise. The lyrics emphatically seal the deal.
Rather than plowing through the sonic characters that define the album as a whole, producers Springsteen, Jon Landau, and Mike Appel smartly spend a little time on character development. Piano and harmonica, then voice and piano, then kick drum and rim-shot and electric guitar subtly join the groove. As Bruce begins to wail the refrain, the E Street Band (as yet, uncredited on the album cover) releases the pent up fury that has been building. Drummer Max Weinberg pummels the snare while Steve Van Zandt joins Roy Bittan and Mike Appel on harmony vocals. By now the guitars are overdriving their tube amplifiers and dominating the stark piano line. Finally a wailing Sax joins the fray as the song fades out.
The lyrical layering is equally obvious/complex. With a casual spin the listener might conclude that Thunder Road offers a desperate car ride to salvation. But the production and delivery defies such simplicity. The tone is more meloncholy than uplifting. Somehow the listener is not deceived . . . knowing intuitively that the redemption is in the moment and that ultimately there is no escape. With each subsequent listen, it becomes more obvious that Bruce¹s intent here is to comiserate with the characters' considerable despair and desire, rather than buy into the promise of some vague and dusty adolescent salvation.