Monday, January 21, 2013

The Bruce Springsteen Retrospective Part VIII: Tunnel of Love

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?

I can't say I envy anyone who has to follow up a record like 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."

And he had. Even the most casual fan, with no contextual knowledge as to what was going on his life when he wrote this record, could have heard that Bruce was going through a rough patch. It was and is the most personally introspective record he ever wrote: not as hopeless as 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.

The semi-autobiographical structure runs through the entire set, kicking off with "Ain't Got You," a tremendous opener where Bruce discusses his new-found fame and wealth, but suggests that all of it has done little to enhance his personal life. "Well I got all the riches honey any man every knew/But the only thing I ain't got honey I ain't got you" he sings, a cappella, at the song's outset, harmonica and swift percussion joining him as the song builds. It's a reserved commencement for an album where even the love songs feel steeped in caution, fear, and regret. "Tougher Than the Rest" swells with a gorgeous '80s atmosphere, complete with a faultless harmonica solo and a country-esque guitar to carry it into its fade-out. The protagonist declares, repeatedly that "if you're rough and ready for love/Honey I'm tougher than the rest," but make no mistake, he ain't the starry-eyed romantic that was trying to persuade Mary to climb into his car on "Thunder Road." No, here, love feels like a more calculated decision, like something to get through, free of the kind of spontaneous passion and youthful energy that fueled Born to Run: clearly, the cracks are already beginning to show.

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."

"Two Faces" is drenched in doubt and self-loathing, Springsteen's conflicting emotions and desires manifesting themselves as alternate personalities. He's torn between walking away to reclaim his old life and staying true to his wedding vows, between love and indifference, and though the song is a minor one, both on the album and within the Springsteen catalog, the imagery here is undeniably effective. It's also a minor song juxtaposed beside Tunnel of Love's most major songbook contribution, the rousing "Brilliant Disguise." Over the years, I've heard an interesting amount of support for this song from a wide cross section of Springsteen fans, from singer/songwriter Matt Nathanson delivering an introspective cover of it (and calling it the best song Bruce ever wrote) to an exuberant fan who, while ranking every Springsteen album track from worst to best, placed it at number five. I don't quite buy into that praise, but I do love "Brilliant Disguise," which brilliantly (pun intended) continues the question of confused identity and role-playing that comes at the end of a long relationship. This is territory that countless singer-songwriters have covered over the course of music history, but when it's done well, few things hurt more. It's the idea of fighting for our relationships, even as we fall out of love, of holding onto each other because it seems easier than cutting our losses, admitting we were wrong, and bidding farewell to the years we spent working towards something greater. The idea that it's easier to lie than to say goodbye. It never is, and "Brilliant Disguise" captures that shattering realization perfectly. "God have mercy on the man who doubts what he's sure of," Springsteen sings as the songs fades out.

"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..."

"Valentine's Day" is one of Springsteen's greatest songs, if only for the way that it completely tears down the walls between the man and his audience. Maybe that's why he had to make the majority of this album on his own, or why he had to say goodbye to the E-Street Band for a little while once the tour wrapped in August 1988. Born in the U.S.A. made Bruce one of the biggest stars in the history of rock 'n' roll: Tunnel of Love was the artist at the epicenter of that craze tearing down everything he'd built and gearing up for a new beginning. It was a break-up album, a rebellion against fame, a new direction, and the end of an era, all in one; it was a mid-life crisis and a life-affirming journey; it's an album fans love for its intimacy, and hate for how it decimated E-Street. And all told, it's a masterpiece, a shattering portrait of a larger-than-life figure who, through the honesty of his music and the resounding relatability of his sentiment, proved once again that, deep down, he's just another guy, mistakes, triumphs, and all.

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