A Springsteen double-header

Chicago Sun Times, 1992-03-29, by: Lloyd Sachs
Bruce releases the best recordings of his career
Human Touch * * * * Lucky Town * * * *
For modern pop fans more attuned to the selling of music than the listening, it's easy to get caught up in the box-office questions posed by Tuesday's release of two new Bruce Springsteen albums, "Human Touch" and "Lucky Town."

Have the five years since his last recording put the Boss out of touch with the kids? Will the release of these blockbusters prove as anti-climactic as Michael Jackson's "Dangerous"? Hasn't that "Human Touch" single been a little slow out of the box?

By adorning the CD booklets with pin-up style photos of Bruce (whose fedora-bearing, U2-ish look can't hurt the marketing effort). Columbia Records certainly is aiming at the younger set. By adopting a separate-but-equal strategy employed last year with Guns N' Roses instead of releasing a standard twofer, a la Springsteen's "The River" (1980), the label is studiously avoiding testing the non-committed buyer. Will any of this make a difference? In the adrenaline rush of these albums, what true music fan could possibly care?

Making no concession to these trend-ridden, production-minded times, "Human Touch" and "Lucky Town" not only meet all hopes and expectations, they exceed them. Filled with hard- earned wisdom and party going passion, poetic desire and ferocious uplift, the attain a stylistic and emotional depth and breadth that only Springsteen among contemporary artists could approach.

"Human Touch" features a core of keyboardist Roy Bittan (the only returning member of Springsteen's E Street Band, save for singer Patti Scialfa), bassist Randy Jackson and former Toto drummer Jeff Porcaro. It's the more earthbound of the pair, marked by emptiness and longing, snake-bitten fortunes and worn-out ideals.

Here are troubled souls for whom physical love is little more than an escape or a macho challenge. The romantic notions imparted by Springsteen's "Born in the USA" anthem, "No Retreat, No Surrender," are trashed in the first verse: "... what you don't surrender," he sings, "Well, the world just strips away."

"Lucky Town," performed largely by an overdubbed Springsteen, provides an antidote by focusing on the leaps of faith that carry humans to higher rewards. Though not quite a case of born in the USA, the album is lifted by a religious devotion one would never expect from the institution- spanking songwriter of the past. It is also lifted by the power of love and family.

One of the first things that strikes you about these recordings, apart from Springsteen's continued move away from sweeping, dramatic statements and toward sparer, more suggestive tales, is how much he has deepened as a singer. If earlier on, he delineated his characters mainly through narrative detail, his huskier, more lived-in voice now enables him to create sometimes startlingly different personas apart from the words.

On "Living Proof," his voice fire-branded by experience, he embodies awakened hope in a man who knows how lucky he is to be touched by God's mercy and the newborn child to whom the title alludes: "You shot right through my anger and rage/To show me my prison was just an open cage/ There were no keys no guards/ Just one frightened man and some old shadows for bars."

In the aftermath of this emotional outburst, Springsteen returns to the plaintive, plain-spoken voice we know to be "Bruce" on the tender wedding song, "Book of Dreams." The effect, repeated throughout these albums, is of being guided by an old friend across troubled terrain.

Springsteen has always been able to invoke his musical heroes via passionate, knowing tributes. But now, he has the advanced emotions and understanding to intertwine his rock 'n' roll roots with folk, blues and especially soul more deeply than ever before.

With founding E Street band member David Sancious playing for broke on organ and onetime Rod Stewart sideman Ian McLagan on piano, "Real Man" (on "Human Touch") possesses the no-holds- barred authority of Gary U.S. Bonds. "Real World," the closest that any of these songs come to the classic E Street sound, is among those on which Springsteen trades charged vocals with Sam Moore of Sam and Dave. "Roll of the Dice," featuring the superb singer and Ry Cooder cohort Bobby King, is an infectious rave-up tune to beat the band.

Across the tracks, on "Lucky Town," "Better Days" is touched by the rough-hewn delight of Wilson Pickett's "I Found a Love," and some of Springsteen's most heartfelt writing: "Every fool's got a reason to feel sorry for himself/And turning his heart to stone/Tonight this fool's halfway to heaven and just a mile outta hell/And I feel like I'm coming home."

They have been, shall we say, more graceful sexual images than that of Moses parting the Red Sea on "Leap of Faith." And at this advanced stage, Bruce might consider going easy on his prolific use of "Well, I," "Well, it's," and "Well, now" to begin lines.

But these are minor flaws in albums that, on the most basic level, grab the listener like nothing Springsteen has done in a long time. "Human Touch" was produced by the seasoned team of Springsteen, Jon Landau, Chuck Plotkin, and Bittan; "Lucky Town" by Springsteen with Landau, Plotkin, and, on three cuts, Bittan. Both are first-rate productions.

Whether pumping up the sound or stripping it down to melancholy basics, working with a full band or letting Springsteen's cutting, testifying, twanging guitar carry the day, the producers maintain a taut, live, larger-than life quality. Mood specialist Mark Isham adds to the small-town poignance of "With Every Wish" with his distant, muted trumpet. The "Lucky Town" CD makes splendid use of singers Scialfa (Mrs. S.), Lisa Lowell, and Soozie Tyrell.

The 14-song "Human Touch" clearly is intended as the "A" album and the briefer, 10-song "Lucky Town" the "B." But leaving at halftime would be like leaving at the intermission of a rock 'n' roll revival; not the oldies kind, but the kind at which the jealous, lovelorn narrator of "I Wish I Were Blind" and others in need of inspiration suddenly see.

Big at the box-office or not, Springsteen could hardly make a bigger or more lasting impression than he does here.