Has The Boss Lost His Touch?

Globe & Mail, 1992-03-28, by: Chris Dafoe
Maybe it's a good thing Bruce Springsteen chose to break four years of silence with not one but two new albums. One of them might possibly be his worst record yet.

It's been more than four years since Bruce Springsteen last released a record, a long enough time that some people - including Sony, the new owner of his record label, Columbia - must have wondered if he was ever going to record again. Springsteen has answered with not one but two new records. HT and LT were both released to radio yesterday and will be in stores Tuesday.

The dual release might prompt skeptics to suggest that Saint Bruce is getting greedy - he'd likely make more money selling two single CDs than one double - and industry insiders suggest that he's getting ready to leave Columbia for a new label. The official explanation, however is that Springsteen having completed one record, started writing songs that took him off in a different musical direction and that he felt the songs belonged on separate records.

After one spin of the two records - press, radio and retail were given a preview on Wednesday {March 25} - that explanation sounds plausible enough. These are two very different records, both in musical style and lyrical tone.

Listening to HT, it's tempting to imagine Springsteen sitting up late at night - Patti and the kids are in bed - playing old records and feeling sorry for himself. He's getting old, his hairline's receeding, he's married - he'd always said he didn't want to make married music - now he's got kids. Sure he's worth millions and, hey, double the abdominal crunches and he'll be beefcake material in time for the first video, but he's still got a load of guilt over the break-up of his first marriage and the tabs are on his case and the record company is bugging him about a new record. So he sits around playing old Coasters and Gene Pitney and Screamin Jay Hawkins and Roy Orbison records and wallowing in his midlife crisis.

I'll allow that Human Touch may improve with repeated listenings - it's hard to judge any record on just one play - but, based on first impressions this may be Springsteen's worst record yet. Lyrically, it seems to follow in the footsteps of 1987's ToL, which foreshadowed his split with his first wife, actress Julianne Phillips, Tunnel was Springsteen at his most confessional, a grim but bracing letter from an unhappy marriage, full of stories of mistrust, adultery and fear.

Those stories seem to be continued on HT, spiced with a little old-fashioned guilt and gratuitous self-loathing. Springsteen tries to put a brave on things with a few upbeat rock songs like Gloria's Eyes, which rides along on a killer guitar riff, and with the humour of such songs as 57 Channels, in which the singer shoots his TV in frustration. The spirit of the record however, seems best captured in such lines as "Built a roadside carnival out of hurt and self pity" (from Real World) and Chippin' away at this chain of my own lies" (from Long Goodbye). This is not a happy Bruce.

Musically, Springsteen has turned here from the country tinged rock of ToL - an appropriate choice for a record so concerned with marriage ? to a sort of glossy updating of those classic rock and roll records of the 50s and 60s. Soul Driver, with its talk of a rain of "snakes, frogs and a love in vain" draws on voodoo southern R & B. 57 Channels and Cross My Heart could have been written by Leiber and Stoller. And I Wish I Were Blind, one of the better songs on the record, sounds like something Orbison might have recorded in one of his more extravagantly morose moments.

But, for all the attempts at humour and all the nods toward the purity of old rock & roll, something here falls flat. Too often, Springsteen sounds self absorbed and cut off from reality; when he tries to play the populist, singing in Real Man about going to the movies and watching Rambo, it comes off as an empty pose.

Having parted company with the E Street Band, Springsteen is working here with a group of studio pros - keyboard player Roy Bittan is the only holdover from the earlier days - and for most of the record they sound slick and stiff. The songwriting seems sloppy and confused and the album sounds like it was patched together.

By comparison, Lucky Town is a delight, a stripped down solo outing full of grit, humour and life that finds Springsteen laughing both at his good fortune and his own self pity. He sets the tone on the first song, the upbeat Better Days, characterizing his situation in the lines "It's a sad funny ending to find yourself pretending/A rich man in a poor man's shirt". He goes on to sing hopefully of married life in the beautifully simple If I Should Fall Behind, and of other rewards of becoming a father in Living Proof.

The album seems to draw on Springsteen's fold music roots, going so far as to offer a nod to Pete Seeger with The Big Muddy, a title borrowed from the song that TV network executives tried to stop Seeger from playing on The Smoothers Brothers Show during the Vietnam War.

In contrast to the hemetic, self absorbed feeling of much of Human Touch, Lucky Town sounds as though Springsteen has ventured back into the real world and re-established the connection between his private and public life. On Souls Of The Departed, he sings of an American soldier on morgue detail in the Middle East and of a child killed in a gang war by way of explaining the fears he has for his own child. On Local Hero, he chuckles over the transitory nature of fame, remarking on a black velvet painting ? presumably of himself - lodged in the window of a five and dime.

Yet while the themes and the lyrical tone of the record may at times recall Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan, the sound is pure rock and roll. Springsteen plays a buzzing, rolling electric guitar throughout, backed for the most part only by a rhythm section and a trio of backup vocalists. The record sounds rough and simple, like a collection of well polished demos, but there's fire and liveliness to it that reinforces the feeling of hopefullness and courage that runs through the songs.

After hearing Human Touch for the first time, I wondered if Springsteen had lost it. Lucky Town makes it clear that he hasn't.