BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN: HUMAN TOUCH (1992)
1) Human Touch; 2) Soul Driver; 3) 57 Channels (And Nothin' On); 4) Cross My Heart; 5) Gloria's Eyes; 6) With Every Wish; 7) Roll Of The Dice; 8) Real World; 9) All Or Nothin' At All; 10) Man's Job; 11) I Wish I Were Blind; 12) The Long Goodbye; 13) Real Man; 14) Pony Boy.
There are some big problems here that even a topsy-turvy assessment of Springsteen's like mine could find hard to ignore. Four years in the making — so long, in fact, that the succeeding Lucky Town caught up with it and both were released on the same day — Human Touch finds the Boss jettisoning the E Street Band almost completely, retaining only Roy Bittan to go on playing the worst kind of synthesizers imaginable. Even worse, it also finds him moving to Los Angeles, of all places — recording in Los Angeles — and employing Jeff Porcaro from Toto to contribute percussion, the rest of his new band members being almost completely unknown.
Perhaps if this album were yet another moody brooding in the vein of Tunnel Of Love, where it was all about personality and very little about energy, the flaws of Human Touch might have been overlooked. But it is not — it is a very blatant attempt to return to the frenzied arena-rock style of Born In The USA, or, at least, it is simply a very distinctly pronounced rock album, period. And playing rock without the E Street Band does make him feel a bit like a duck out of the baking oven... ten minutes earlier than it should be, that is. The playing throughout is stiff and very «professional» — just your usual session musicians getting paid for whatever it is that they are getting paid for. Bad keyboards, overprocessed guitars, and although Jeff Porcaro is quite well respected in musical circles, next to Springsteen he just doesn't have the same regal stature as Max Weinberg. This is not his native turf, anyway — why should he be doing anything other than, you know, drumming?
But the irony of it all is that the songs themselves, on the whole, are not that much better or that much worse than any randomly picked tune on Born In The USA (ʽDancing In The Darkʼ and its absurdly genius synth line excluded). Most of the time, this is uninventive, but still catchy pop-rock, not as «anthemic» as it used to be (though some of the songs, like ʽRoll The Diceʼ, unsuccessfully try to come across as inspiring anthems), just moderately exciting Bruce'n'roll that does not ask you to worship it but sort of tries to invite you to have a good time. Repeated listens will let you get over the weakass production, and then you will understand that very little has actually changed in Bruce's songwriting ever since he adopted the River formula. And since he's always been relatively content to go along with the general musical flow, never distancing himself from the current mainstream trends, well, no wonder that in 1992 he sounds like they all sound in 1992 (granted, maybe still a little worse: with the grunge explosion hitting hard and influencing even the veteran rockers, you'd think those guitars could use a little overdrive without spooking off the population — I mean, ʽMan's Jobʼ almost sounds like the frickin' Cure's ʽFriday I'm In Loveʼ! not that this would be bad for The Cure, but it is fairly weird for the Boss).
Thematically, everything here is quite simplistic — largely just love songs, though every once in a while Bruce still lashes out tangentially at those weird ways in which the world has developed: ʽ57 Channels (And Nothing On)ʼ is not the most intelligently written anti-TV song ever written, but it is a pretty funny satirical blurb for Bruce — a talkin'-blues musical joke, on which he even took up the bass guitar himself, and whose message, simple as it is, is unfortunately still relevant for a large part of the population worldwide. But even in that song, "home entertainment was my baby's wish", and most of the other songs are quite straightforwardly about his baby — kind of understandable, considering how Bruce managed to patch up his personal life after Tunnel Of Love and was several years into a happy marriage with Patti Scialfa.
The less said about individual songs, the better. Personally, I am still very much bored when he is getting soft and sentimental (the title track; ʽWith Every Wishʼ), but it gets much better when he lets in a little bluesy darkness and a little more hoarse-throated soul (ʽSoul Driverʼ, with a nice vocal journey from angry verse to pleading chorus), or when he is just raving and ranting about the fool he has been (ʽGloria's Eyesʼ, which, if I am not mistaken, borrows the guitar hook from Don Covay's ʽMercy Mercyʼ, but this is not an album where you're supposed to be noticing any guitar hooks anyway). Then it gets worse when he stoops to braggardly cock-rock (ʽAll Or Nothing At Allʼ, where one of the implied lines is "you'd slip me just a piece of ass", last word coyly masked as the neutral "it", but rhymes don't lie!), but again it gets better when he rises to purely romantic sexism ("lovin' you baby is a man's man's job" — even despite the song's message sounding so atavistic in the era of gay marriage, the catchiness of the chorus can't be denied; hopefully, we'll hear a George Michael cover some day).
Clearly, at 59 minutes this sucker's just plain overlong: when, towards the end, nearing exhaustion, you are forced to sit through the triumphantly moronic synth riff and the clichéd masculinity of ʽReal Manʼ, ideas of progressive taxes on bad songwriting start taking actual shape. But trim it down to a decent size, and Human Touch shows an artist who may be out of touch and a little out of shape, yet still essentially true to his formula. Lyrics, production, and energy all show signs of wear — but what about those of us who were never all that awed by his lyrics in the first place, and occasionally felt a little embarrassed about those levels of energy? To those people the deep gap that separates Human Touch from Born In The USA, or the allegedly even deeper gap that separates it from Born To Run might not feel that deep — nothing that can't be bridged with, you know, just a little of that human touch.