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Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Bruce Springsteen: Tunnel Of Love

BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN: TUNNEL OF LOVE (1987)

1) Ain't Got You; 2) Tougher Than The Rest; 3) All That Heaven Will Allow; 4) Spare Parts; 5) Cautious Man; 6) Walk Like A Man; 7) Tunnel Of Love; 8) Two Faces; 9) Brilliant Disguise; 10) One Step Up; 11) When You're Alone; 12) Valentine's Day.

There are two ways to think about Tunnel Of Love. The first one is that this is one more unex­pected career twist — after the thunder, the sweat, the blood-pumping of Born In The USA, The Boss just flushes the «Rambo rock» down the drain and goes all adult contemporary on us. The second way of thinking is that this is simply where The Boss... grows old. Take a mental snapshot of the man in the ʽDancing In The Darkʼ video — then, with that snapshot still in active memory, take a look at this album cover. Two different people. Heck, he almost looks like Vincent Vega in that outfit and with that particular posture.

Thing is, I can easily live with either way of thinking, or with both at the same time, but in either case Tunnel Of Love is simply not very good. Going introspective, personal, and depressed after the flamboyant extravert show that was Born In The USA is all very good, but in 1987, it just does not look like Bruce was all that ready for such a metamorphosis. He really was depressed, worn down by his «pop idol» image as well as devastated by the collapse of his first marriage, but he was not able to channel his depression into music — the songs on Tunnel are as simple and straightforward as they used to be, but now they're just depressed. And boring.

The synthesizers on Born In The USA may have had crappy Eighties' tones, but when you are caught in that kind of frenzy, let's face it, you don't really give a damn about the synth tone. The album suffered from mediocre production, but more than made up for it in terms of drive, energy, and hooks. Not so on these songs. Electronic drums, «dinky» lead keyboards and «heavenly» synth tones in the background dominate the turf here, and what does it all have to do with Bruce Springsteen? The title track is a bland dance number that could have been sung by Kim Wilde, with each one of the above-mentioned elements present, and some awful metallic guitar solos to complete the picture. Even the lyrics, which many critics have praised, are nothing special — "You've got to learn to live with what you can't rise above / If you want to ride on down in through this tunnel of love". Not very original, if you ask me.

The recording was originally planned to be a Springsteen solo recording, before he relented and let some of the E Street Band members to sit in — a misguided decision, methinks, because with Bruce, it's either all the way or no way at all. Maybe if all the tracks were completely acoustic, just the man and his guitar Nebraska-fashion again, it would have produced a stronger impres­sion because of the intimacy. But when I listen to a decent track like ʽBrilliant Disguiseʼ, I can't help thinking how much better it would have been with a full-hearted rather than half-hearted ap­proach — more guitars, louder drums, a wild sax solo, some shouting, the band wilding out, and who cares about the lyrics being so personal? He did let other people play on the track anyway, didn't he? And not going all the way, he let it get limp. And who knows, he might have had ano­ther ʽBobby Jeanʼ in his pocket here. The accompanying minimalistic video, shot in black and white and featuring the man adding live vocals to an acoustic track, is offset by the bland musi­cal backing — if it is a song of such personal strength and depth, why is it so blandly arranged and so devoid of any decent musical hooks?

Fact is, if it were a record by anybody other than Bruce — Sting, for example, not to mention Bryan Adams — critical attention would probably pass it by. However, as this was a dark, deeply introspective album following the man's biggest success to date, it was tacitly decided that Tun­nel Of Love would be endorsed: it is, after all, so tempting to have the big guy first scatter his thunder and lightning around, then suddenly let you in on his deepest secrets, make himself vul­nerable, open up his bleeding heart and disclose to the public that even the People's Champion has his own personal problems that tie into human, not social relations. And this temptation was stronger than simply admitting that ʽTougher Than The Restʼ and ʽWalk Like A Manʼ are lazy, poorly written, crappily arranged ballads that cannot be said to contain more «soul» than any given adult contemporary ballad of the decade — unless your position is that any track on which Bruce Springsteen opens his mouth already got soul a-plenty.

Re-reading my old vitriolic assessment of this record years ago, I thought that, heck, I myself am one year older now than Bruce was when making this album, maybe the reaction would be dif­ferent this time — but it wasn't. I do not find the atmosphere of Tunnel particularly seductive, captivating, or intriguing; I do not find any interest in its melodies; I have no frickin' idea why so many people reward it with so many stars as if it were the ultimate breakup album. I have no idea why ʽValentine's Dayʼ drags on for so long, or what exactly the swamp rockin' ʽSpare Partsʼ is doing here (I wish I could call it the best song on the album, but that would probably get dogs snappin' at my heels). I feel sorry for the guy circa 1987, but I am also glad that he made it out very easily — all it took was realizing that fellow musicians make better wives than models (but don't tell Keith Richards, or there'll be a violent Telecaster battle somewhere out in space). So no hard feelings whatsoever, but a thumbs down all the same: as an artistic statement, Tunnel Of Love is bland and boring, and as an entertainment package, it does not even begin to exist.

10 comments:

  1. Nice review, George. I'm with you on this one. Bruce doesn't play to any of his strengths here. The sound is wispy and toothless, and the songs are under-written. I like your point that it could be a Sting album. It was a bold step, given that the public was primed for something completely different, but it was still a misstep.

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    1. If it were a Sting album, it would at least have a greater assortment of chords.

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  2. So now we all can calculate your age ....
    I think it remarkable how you get more tolerant. I'm more than a decade older than you but if anything only got less with the years. There's quite some stuff I loved years ago but now have a much lower opinion of.

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  3. I've mixed this with USA and some of the era's work from Tracks, and I think the material sounds better as a counterbalance to some of USA's excesses (I still had to substitute the acoustic version of USA's title track for the original). Listened to by itself, I agree, this album is too bland.

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    1. Would you mind sharing the tracklist with us? I'm kinda interested now!

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    2. Sure. As I looked again, I see that a couple of the tracks were from his following solo albums, which I thought were good and which fit in with the feel/themes of USA and ToL.

      Human Touch
      Tunnel of Love
      One Step Up
      I'm on Fire
      Dancing in the Dark
      Johnny Bye-Bye
      Glory Days
      Downbound Train
      My Hometown
      Tougher Than the Rest
      Cautious Man
      Over the Rise
      If I Should Fall Behind
      Brilliant Disguise
      Bobby Jean
      No Surrender
      When You're Alone
      Valentine's Day
      When You Need Me
      Born in the U.S.A. (demo)
      Turn Out the Light
      This Hard Land

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  4. Having grown up in the tri-state area, I had Bruce Springsteen shoved down my throat on a daily basis by my otherwise favorite radio station. The cult only got worse when Born In the USA became such a huge hit. So the first album that got me to really appreciate Bruce was this one, mostly because all the "new fans" hated it. Here's my take:
    http://everybodysdummy.blogspot.com/2013/09/bruce-springsteen-9-tunnel-of-love.html

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  5. I only quite recently got around to listening to this (entire) album, and I think it's really good. It's sort-of a good example of "80s' music" -- it sounds very 80s (not good), but makes it work (good). 'Brilliant Disguise', 'Tougher Than The Rest', and 'Walk Like a Man' are some of Bruce's best-ever songs. The record as a whole is easy to listen to, melodically strong, and lyrically solid. I like how it's almost a Bruce solo-album, but with 80s' flourishes. It's a one-off, basically.

    I do think 'Ain't Got You' is an inappropriate opener, however, and the album might have benefited from a little more instrumental diversity and one or two more uptempo tracks, but overall I think this is a solid 4-star recording, especially given the "weak" period in popular music it derives from.

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  6. The songs are stronger than the production. A problem partially remedied by many fine covers by other artists. Country singers seem particularly attracted to "Tougher than the rest". Elvis Costello did "Brilliant disguise", Kenny Chesney did a nice "One step up".

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  7. "Tougher than the rest" poorly written? I don't agree with you. It's a beautiful ballad. Maybe the arrangement is too eighties; try Emmylou Harrys versión and tell me it's not a beautiful song.

    Tomine

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