"Springsteen is still searching for love and salvation"

Chicago Tribune, 1992-03-29, by: Greg Kot
Human Touch * * * 1/2
Lucky Town * * * *
With his first album in 4 and 1/2 years, Bruce Springsteen doesn't reinvent himself or his art, but tries to cut to their essence. With "Human Touch," he approaches the level of his best work, on "Lucky Town" he equals it.

"Human Touch" was recorded with numerous outside musicians at several Los Angeles studios, and it is the more overtly "commercial" of the two albums. After it was completed, Springsteen continued to write songs, playing most of the instruments and recording at his home studio in L.A. The resulting album, "Lucky Town," is one of his greatest.

Of the 14 songs of "Human Touch," Springsteen asserts his knowledge and mastery of the tradition he works in, a synthesis of 60's rock and soul seasoned with a jazzy mood piece ("With Every Wish") and an acoustic reworking of a traditional ballad ("Pony Boy"). Like his 1984 blockbuster "Born in the USA," many of his songs sound tailor-made for a stadium tour.

Much was made of Springsteen's decision to part ways with his longtime E Street Band, but on "Human Touch" drummer Jeff Porcaro and bassist Randy Jackson (abetted by E Street pianist Roy Bittan) sound like an E Street replica. Porcaro in particular could pass for longtime Springsteen drummer Max Weinberg, with his terse style and rifle-shot snare.

The album's deepest impression, however, is made by the singers. In the past, Springsteen tended to mumble on the ballads and rush through the rockers. But here he sings with clarity and force, even as he is pushed to the emotional brink by guest vocalists such as soul veteran Bobby King, Sam Moore (of Sam and Dave) and Bobby Hatfield (of the Righteous Brothers).

Lyrically, "Human Touch" picks up where Springsteen's last studio album, "Tunnel of Love," left off in 1987, exploring the ambiguity and doubt that erode the ideal of ever-lasting love. With the 6 and 1/2 minute title track, a soul-fired rocker, Springsteen establishes the album's premise - that all we can ask of love is temporary shelter - then explores it from many stylistic and emotional angles through the album's first half.

With the rockabilly-flavored "57 Channels (And Nothin' On)," the churning "Gloria's Eyes," and the jazzy "With Every Wish," Springsteen suggest that love can never outlast our restlessness, that security and permanence are illusions. The sexually charged "Cross My Heart," "Soul Driver," and "Roll of the Dice" imply that even in this imperfect and impermanent state, love is worth it all anyway. But with "Man's Job" and "Real Man," Springsteen's writing falters ("... takin' care of you darlin'/Ain't for one of the boys" he sings on "Man's Job"), and these clich?s make the last half of the album a bumpier ride.

If "Human Touch" could stand a little pruning, "Lucky Town" is a model of concision and coherence. Its ten songs are sparse lyrically and instrumentally, and - like all great albums, from "The Band" to "Blood on the Tracks" ? they are almost unimaginable without each other. Each song resonates more deeply because of those that immediately precede and follow it.

Ironically, the big-rock songs on "Human Touch" are introspective, preoccupied with small victories and momentary respite from a world spinning out of the singer's reach. On "Lucky Town," however, the singer plunges outward, even as the music becomes more intimate. The album is soaked in blues and country influences, and made even earthier by the twangy affectations in Springsteen's voice. "But it's a sad man my friend, who's livin' in his own skin/And can't stand the company," Springsteen sings on the first track, "Better Days."

One listener who had heard the album months ago compared its theme to that of the recent movie "Grand Canyon," and drew a parallel between Springsteen's "sad man" and the character played by Kevin Kline. In the movie, Kline's life has sunken into mid-life malaise, only to be transformed by a stranger's act of courage. Springsteen's script isn't nearly as unbelievable or maudlin as much of the film's, but the comparison is apt.

The search for redemption begins at the bottom of "The Big Muddy," which conjures up the doom- ridden blues of Robert Johnson. One can practically hear the flies buzzing around a carcass in the Delta swamp. "Waist deep in the big muddy," Springsteen moans, "you start up on higher ground but end up somehow crawlin' in."

He is pulled from the muck in "The Living Proof," in which the love of a woman is compared to godliness. Two beautiful ballads, "Book of Dreams" and the hymn-like "If I Should Fall Behind" are like prayers of thanks. "Tonight I'm drinkin' in the forgiveness/This life provides," Springsteen sings on the former.

The album concludes with two songs that are emotional book-ends. "Souls of the Departed" is a blistering indictment of a world too corrupt to save itself, and not even the singer is spared: "Now I ply my trade in the land of king dollar/Where you get paid and your silence passes as honor," he wails, before an abrasive guitar solo.

Then, in "My Beautiful Reward," the spare elegance of Springsteen's verse takes on the healing power of poetry, bringing the album full circle:

"Tonight I can feel the cold wind at my back I'm flyin' high over gray fields, my feathers long and black Down along the river's silent edge I soar Searching for my beautiful reward" - "My Beautiful Reward," 1992, Bruce Springsteen

It suggests that there may never be a solution to life's anguish, but that the search itself is salvation enough.