Now you play the loving woman, I'll play the faithful man
But just don't look too close into the palm of my hand
We stood at the alter, the gypsy swore our future was right
But come the wee wee hours, well maybe baby the gypsy lied
So when you look at me, you better look hard and look twice
Is that me baby, or just a brilliant disguise?
Born in the U.S.A.: anything that reaches that level of pop-cultural ubiquity is going to have fans waiting on bated breath for what's next and the record label scrambling for a repeat performance. While the true fans will always remain, the fact is that lightning rarely strikes in the same place twice, and that a record which spawns seven top-ten singles, sells millions of copies, and rockets an artist to the rarefied air of the world's biggest superstars cannot possibly be duplicated. In the three years between Born in the U.S.A. and Tunnel of Love, Bruce Springsteen was transformed from a working-class rocker into one of the richest, most recognizable pop stars of the era; his world was turned upside down, he had fans that had never known he'd existed before, and he could hear his voice on the radio at any hour of the day. And on top of all that, he also got married: to actress and model Julianne Phillips, in 1985. Springsteen was eternally on the road, rumors spread that he had begun a relationship with E-Street Band member Patti Scialfa, and trouble in paradise exploded quickly. Their inevitable divorce was finalized in 1989, but first came the record that tried to explain why. Bono said it best a decade later, when he had the privilege of inducting the Boss into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame:
"Something was going on though. As a fan I could see that
my hero was beginning to rebel against his own public image. Things got
even more interesting on Tunnel of Love when he started to deface it: a
remarkable bunch of tunes where our leader starts having a go at himself
and the hypocrisy of his own heart before anyone else could. But the
tabloids could never break news on Bruce Springsteen, because as fans,
he'd already told us everything in the songs."
Nebraska, but every bit as resigned. A broken heart wasn't the only change evident on Tunnel of Love either, though: no, the first and foremost change here is the one that takes place in the overall sonic structures, all having to do with the fact that the by-then-trademark E-Street sound was nowhere to be found. The group's members all make appearances (with the exception of Steve van Zandt, who we bid farewell to on Born in the U.S.A.'s "Bobby Jean"), but drummer Max Weinberg was the only one to play on more than a quarter of the songs and Clarence Clemons was only used as a back-up vocalist on penultimate cut, "When You're Alone." His saxophone is undoubtedly missed, but Springsteen conjures something special here that almost makes us forget about the band. Like Bono says, he shielded himself from cruel rumors with this record, but it was also more than that: he gave fans the barest glimpse into his own life that they'd yet been afforded. He broke down a barrier between himself and his audience, and despite the fact that he'd only recently become one of the biggest names in music, he made a record of astounding honesty and intimacy. If fans had worried that he would stop putting himself in their shoes after he became a rich man, those fears were gone after a couple of tracks. But Springsteen wasn't just assuring his fans that he wasn't going to start writing fluff pop songs: he was wearing his heart on his sleeve, purging his soul, and healing himself, and in the process, he was making one of the greatest break-up albums of all time.
Some break-up albums seem like they are the result of a single creative burst following the disintegration of a significant relationship, like the songwriters sat down and channeled every ounce of their pain, anger, regret, nostalgia, and sadness into a single piece of art. In Springsteen's case, he seems to write himself into it as he goes, offering a wider portrait of a relationship that, at the record's outset, is just starting to fracture; by the time we get to the last five tracks, that same relationship is in disrepair. But like Bono said, Bruce broke the news here himself. For fans used to the guy who usually sang about the everyman, about characters and stories that he conjured up in his own mind, I can imagine Tunnel of Love must have been a confusing record. Because even though he's still singing about everyman issues and relatable life struggles, the character here is Bruce himself and the songs are, for once, almost entirely introspective.
Bruce gives himself a respite on "All That Heaven Will Allow," and whether its a flashback or something playing out in real time, the change in tone is welcome. Happiness abounds here, both lyrically and musically, and the love is real...if only it could last. The album's most potent rocker, "Spare Parts," sounds like a Born in the U.S.A. track and plays like a continuation of the story from "The River." It paints the portrait of a woman who loses almost everything, but somehow finds the will to carry on after pawning her wedding dress and ring, shedding the vestiges of her old life and her forgotten dreams, and showing the same kind of resilience that so many Springsteen heroes find at the conclusion of their stories. Adversely, "Cautious Man" sounds like a Nebraska outtake, revolving around a character named Bill Horton that, for all the song's narrative force, is little more than a thinly veiled alias for Bruce himself. The character here tries to marry and settle down, but the restlessness in his heart and the darkness in his spirit leave him walking along the highway in the middle of the night, even though he knows that that wide open road won't lead anywhere. Needless to say, we are once again seeing the escapism of Born to Run from the other side of the tracks, and it's harrowing.
"Walk Like a Man" is nearly as heartbreaking, offering a wistful flashback to the actual wedding day, to the same character that we've charted all along, a guy who's just trying to play his part and do what's right. A guy just trying to live up to those who have gone before him. Just like The River's "Independence Day," "Walk Like a Man" finds Springsteen still exploring the confusing relationship he shared with his father, and just like that song, this one stops the album in its tracks. It's the perfect conclusion to side one, marking a thematic divide between Springsteen's troubled attempts to hold his marriage together and his emotional need to just let everything go. The centerpiece title track is the other part of that divide, a carnivalesque beauty of a song, soaked in nostalgic summer night atmosphere, that uses a dark theme park ride as a metaphor for a crumbling marriage. "It's easy for two people to lose each other," Springsteen sings, "in this tunnel of love."
"One Step Up" is the even-more painful follow-up, a mournful ballad that finds the narrator in a bar, gazing at a beautiful woman and considering doing the one thing that will cause more damage and pain to himself and his relationship than just being straight and calling it quits. But the genius of the songwriting here is that it doesn't go that way: rather than using "One Step Up" as a means of explaining his (possible) affair with bandmate and future wife Patti Scialfa, Springsteen flips the temptation around, transforming it into a lens for gazing back fondly at a marriage and a love at its end. "Last night I dreamed I held you in my arms/The music was never-ending/We danced as the evening sky faded to black," Bruce sings, "One step up and two steps back."
That same narrator makes one final play for redemption on "Valentine's Day," a gorgeous hymn of a love song that finds Springsteen at his most vulnerable, his most simplistic, and his most lyrical. The final verse feels like a vow to try harder, to be better, to love more fully, and to greet the next phase of life with open arms. Today, we know that Bruce's marriage to Phillips ended shortly after the album's release and tour, but this song, it's final verse especially, is one last invocation to her and to the love the two shared:
"They say if you die in your dreams you really die in your bed
But honey last night I dreamed my eyes rolled straight back in my head
And God's light came shinin' on through
I woke up in the darkness scared and breathin' and born anew
It wasn't the cold river bottom I felt rushing over me
It wasn't the bitterness of a dream that didn't come true
It wasn't the wind in the grey fields I felt rushing through my arms
No no baby it was you
So hold me close honey say you're forever mine
And tell me you'll be my lonely valentine..."