Almost five years have passed since Bruce Springsteen released a studio album, the surprisingly introspective Tunnel of Love. Yet in that time, rock’s reluctant superstar has remained in the limelight. In 1988, he headlined Amnesty International’s Human Rights Now! tour, which travelled more than 35,000 miles and played to more than one million people in 15 countries on four continents. Then he released a live foursong recording, called Chimes of Freedom, to benefit the same organization. At the same time, Springsteen’s personal life went through both upheaval and renewal. First, there was his markedly public divorce from model Julianne Phillips, followed by his marriage to backup singer Patti Scialfa and the birth of their two children, Jessica and Evan. Then reports emerged of another divorce—from his longtime musical partners in the E Street Band. Now, with the release of two new studio albums, Human Touch and Lucky Town (both
on Sony), 42-year-old Springsteen takes stock of that tumultuous period to present an intimate yet candidly modest self-portrait.
Demythologizing. his own image is something that Springsteen began doing with 1987’s Tunnel of Love. Born in the U.S.A., his phenomenal mid-1980s album and tour of the same name, had turned the New Jersey native into a larger-than-life figure, a patriotic, Rambo-like champion of the downtrodden. But, apparently, Springsteen wanted no part of jingoism or hero worship. With Tunnel of Love, he deliberately pulled back and focused on more domestic concerns. In the same way, Human Touch and Lucky Town avoid pumpedup social anthems in favor of personal tributes to love, faith and hope in the 1990s. Although there is only an album’s worth of good songs between the two, Springsteen proves that he is still one of rock’s most talented writers. And several numbers show that he is now putting the issue of his public image into perspective.
Of the two, Lucky Town is the closer-tohome project. A near-solo effort in which Springsteen has written all 10 compositions and plays nearly all of the instruments, it is dedicated to his wife and two children. Like bookends bracketing his marriages, the album opens and closes with songs about love and illusion. On the hard-rocking opener, Better Days, a gravelly voiced Springsteen acknowledges that he was living a lie, when he sings: “It’s a sad man my friend who’s livin’ in his own skin/And can’t stand the company.” He then paints a convincing picture of happier times
with Scialfa. The last song, My Beautiful Reward, could easily be about his troubled relationship with Phillips. In it, he sings of thinking himself “the lucky one” until he came “crashing down like a drunk on a barroom floor.”
In between are fewer story-songs than audiences largely expect from a songwriter who counts Woody Guthrie among his inspirations. Gone are the Spanish Johnnies and Puerto Rican Janes that populated Springsteen’s earlier work. And no characters are as vivid as Bobby and Janey were in Tunnel of Love. But two songs stand out: Souls of the Departed and The Big Muddy. The first, a bluesy hymn to victims of war and inner-city violence, comes to life when Springsteen contemplates his own son’s mortality. And the second, with its heavy bottleneck-blues atmosphere, deals with the slippery slope of morality.
Human Touch, with 14 songs performed by Springsteen’s new four-piece band, is a more varied and extroverted undertaking. But despite fine performances from two of the best soul singers around, Bobby King and Sam Moore (of Sam & Dave fame), much of the music lacks the passion of earlier Springsteen albums. The material, some of it co-written with keyboardist Roy Bittan, the only remaining original E Street Band musician, covers a lot of ground. The title track does sound like classic Springsteen. Musically, it purrs along like a well-tuned Chevy and then kicks in with a rewed-up part in which Springsteen begs for a little compassion.
But the most revealing songs on Human Touch are Real Man and Real World, which are obviously intended as companion pieces. In Real Man, Springsteen wades into the murky waters of masculinity, a subject made murkier by so-called new-man philosophies popularized by such authors as Robert Bly. Springsteen, who had earlier invited the Rambo comparisons with his proletarian-warrior stance and muscle-bound physique, dismisses the character in the song, and states: “I don’t need a gun in my fist, baby/All I need is your sweet kiss.” In Real World, he insists that he is seeking a normal life without celebrity fanfare. “Ain’t no church bells ringing,” he sings, “ain’t no flags unfurled/Just me and you and the love we’re bringing/Into the real world.”
Other songs appear at odds with those sentiments. But Springsteen illustrates that he is aware of the contradictions. In Local Hero, he seems to enjoy spotting a black-velvet painting of himself in his home town, but then acknowledges the pitfalls of stardom. “First they made me the king, then they made me the Pope,” he sings, before adding ominously: “Then they brought the rope.”
Such confessions are the strength of Human Touch and Lucky Town. And although Springsteen is merely cruising on an artistic level, the albums indicate that he has shifted into high gear on the personal front. Taken as a package, they reveal how one rock star is struggling to stay real in a world that demands that its heroes take on mythic proportions.
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.