The Boss Feels Good

Los Angeles Times, 1992-03-29, by: Robert Hilburn
Bruce Springsteen, the noted brooder, directs his passion into a celebration of happiness in his two new albums
In his first albums in more than four years, Bruce Springsteen gives us one collection to lift our spirits -- the energetic "Human Touch" -- and one to touch our hearts, the introspective "Lucky Town." The common bond is a theme that Springsteen has resisted for most of his career: happiness.

Springsteen, in fact, thought long and hard 12 years ago about whether to even include on an album a song as unreservedly happy as "Out on the Street." Determined in his music to examine life's dark challenges, the most celebrated rock singer-songwriter of the '70s and '80s worried that the tale of romantic infatuation was misleading. Life wasn't so simple or so joyous. He did finally include the song on his album "The River" because, he reasoned, there are moments, however fleeting, when everything does seem right.

Yet the sparkle of brightness remained the exception in his work. His best songs often contained the inspiring qualities of anthems, but the celebration -- or moments of victory -- rarely moved beyond vowing not to compromise your ideals, not to give up on dreams of better days.

The revelation of Springsteen's new albums, due in stores Tuesday, is that he is now focusing on those better days -- and what makes the albums so stirring is that he continues to apply the same passion and standards that he maintained through all the years of search. This is mature rock 'n' roll with an edge -- a gateway in Springsteen's career and a significant step in the evolution of rock.

It's a hard-won happiness, to be sure, that is chronicled in such centerpieces as "The Real World" (from the "Human Touch" album) and "Better Days" and "Living Proof" (both from "Lucky Town") as Springsteen writes and sings in a frequently raw, confessional style about wrong turns and self- doubts.

In the opening seconds of the "Lucky Town" album, Springsteen declares:

I'm tired of waitin' for tomorrow to come
Or that train to come roarin' round the bend
I've got a new suit of clothes, a pretty red rose
And a woman I can call my friend...
These are better days baby
Yeah, there's better days shining through

He sings with the bite of his greatest rockers, and the arrangement is as full-bodied as the E Street Band anthems, which should ease fears of longtime Springsteen fans who worried that the dismissal of the old band would result in a drastic change in his musical style.

Springsteen plays most of the instruments on the "Lucky Town" album, giving the 10-song collection the intimate, deeply revealing (though never the desolate) feel of 1982's "Nebraska". The arrangements are more fully punctuated on the "Human Touch" album, which is why it is likely to be the more commercially successful of the collections. Backed by a core of musicians that includes keyboardist Roy Bittan (the sole E Street Band holdover), bassist Randy Jackson and drummer Jeff Porcaro, Springsteen moves from the jukebox-ready R&B grooves of "Man's Job" to the blues-edged spark of "Cross My Heart" to the ringing guitar sting of "Gloria's Eyes."

But it's the thoughts in the albums that hit hardest. Through most of his earlier albums, Springsteen's vision seemed shaped by the anger and disillusionment he felt as a young man when he saw how those around him often had their aspirations and dreams stripped away by outside forces. Here, however, he warns that internal forces can be equally damaging, how it is sometimes easier to let the ideal of a better day keep you from making the commitments in your personal life that allow you to open yourself up to moments of comfort and joy.

While both albums contain traces of the theme, there is more consistent attention to it in "Lucky Town," which is why it is the more immediately compelling of the two works. Nothing is more chilling emotionally -- or telling thematically?than "Living Proof," a gripping, multidimensional song that begins with an expression of awe and appreciation of a new father:

Well now on a summer night in a dusky room
Come a little piece of the Lord's undying light
Crying like he swallowed the fiery moon
In his mother's arms it was all the beauty I could take
Like the missing words to a prayer that I could never make
In a world so hard an dirty, so fouled and confused
Searching for a little bit of God's mercy
I found living proof

What makes this introspective song so moving is that Springsteen uses the moment of happiness to acknowledge the times of past trial and doubt that once were a barrier to his own emotional fulfillment:

You do some sad, sad things baby
When it's you you're trying to lose
You do some sad and hurtful things
I've seen living proof

Elsewhere in the song, he addresses the child's mother, who apparently helped the song's narrator overcome emotional handicaps and confusion:

You shot 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

It's hard in all this to know just how much is autobiographical, but everything about Springsteen's past music tells us that at least part of the song is self-examination.

The new albums arrive at a time when Springsteen's commitment and integrity have been widely questioned; a time when this private man made tabloid headlines through a divorce, the breakup of his band, the move from his New Jersey roots to a Beverly Hills estate and marriage to E Street Band singer Patti Scialfa.

In some ways, the man who had helped restore terms like "hero" and "integrity" to rock seemed out of control. The key question was how all these changes would affect his music. The first hint of his new direction was during a 1990 benefit concert in Los Angeles in which he previewed "Real World," a key song on the "Human Touch" album. Sitting at the piano, he defined in the song the essential message of the two new albums:

Mister trouble come walkin' this way
Year gone past feels like one long day
But I'm alive and I'm feelin' all right ...
Just me and you
And the love we're brining Into the real world

Mirroring the optimism of the song, most the "Human Touch" deals with Springsteen's regaining the joy of playing music after the hard days of the divorce and the accompanying distractions. The songs are catchy, seductive and appealing, even though some of it seems a bit studio-slick. There are important themes in the songs -- sometimes cloaked in the humor of "57 Channels (and Nothin' On)" or "Real Man" -- but it's the music that propels the series of tunes.

"Lucky Town," which was recorded after "Human Touch" was completed, extends Springsteen into the more revealing and personal territory -- the stripping away of emotional layers that has accompanied his greatest breakthroughs.

The failure of his first marriage must have been devastating for Springsteen because for years he had claimed there was no place in his life for permanent relationships -- that his music and his restless, lone-wolf lifestyle made them essentially impossible. Yet he eventually felt a need for a family and finally took a chance. To see it explode in unhappiness raised questions about himself and his future. That's why much of the music is about taking chances, phrases like "roll of the dice" and "leap of faith." He took another chance on romance and commitment -- and this time it worked.

Yet the songs aren't just odes to happy endings. In one of the most complex and moving songs, he sings about the death of a soldier during the Persian Gulf War and then the murder of a 7-year- old on a playground in Compton. He then reflects:

Tonight as I tuck my own son in bed
All I can think of is what if it would've been him instead
I want to build a wall so high nothing can burn it down
Right here on my own piece of dirty ground

The conflict is obvious. He has the money and power to protect his child in ways other families don't -- and it's unsettling in what it says about class and power.

For years, expressions of happiness were considered dangerous for rock's great artists because it might bring complacency. But you don't have to sacrifice your artistic instincts when acknowledging moments of comfort and tenderness. In these two albums, Springsteen offers living proof.