Rock 'n' Roll Redemption

CD Review, 1992-05, by: Robert Santelli
Human Touch: 9/9, Lucky Town: 8/9 [ performance/sound quality on scale of 10 ]
No one could ever call Bruce Springsteen a predictable rock artist and be telling the truth. Consider this: When the music industry said push, he pulled back, taking more than four years to complete "Human Touch" and "Lucky Town," the two follow-ups to 1987's "Tunnel of Love."

Rather than play it safe musically by making the albums with his tried and true E Street Band, he let the boys go, and brought in L.A. session studs like drummer Jeff Porcaro and bass player Randy Jackson. Understandably, fans began to wonder.

Rather than remain in New Jersey, Springsteen moved to Beverly Hills, comfort capital of the world, and got himself a grand mansion. Many observers figured the Boss would finally be forced to abandon his working-class hero image for one more slick and soft, and at the very least, more Californian. After all, who would ever believe new songs about down-and-out factory workers or shattered dream from that geographical locale?

On his newest collection of songs, Springsteen, it's true, has relinquished his role as the blue- collar Everyman. But there's no West Coast stance anywhere on either "Human Touch" or "Lucky Town." Where once Springsteen was a modern Woody Guthrie, an artist who probed deep into America's underbelly, stared at its soul, and tried to make some sense out of what he saw, this time around the soul he stares at is his own.

The visions are startling. What we hear and feel in his new music is a bold attempt at personal reconciliation and rock 'n' roll redemption. On both albums Springsteen unabashedly confronts the demons that haunt him and pays back the angels that save him from a personal hell.

Put another way, the 24 tracks on these two new albums are nothing less than naked and agonizing acts of contrition, that when all is said and done, free Springsteen from the shackles and chains of superstardom and allow him to draw new conclusions about life and love, pain and passion, and most important, himself.

There are some incredibly raw moments that Springsteen shares with the faithful. Listen closely to the self-mocking "57 Channels," a song from the brilliantly crafted "Human Touch," that begins with the lines "I bought a bourgeois house in the Hollywood Hills/With a dump truck of hundred thousand dollar bills." Pay special attention to the poetic poignancy that abounds in "Lucky Town"s title track as Springsteen tackles the thorny issues of excess and self-fulfillment. Observe the way he lets feelings of emptiness and disillusionment run rampant through "My Beautiful Reward," all the while hoping for a new lease on life.

But "Human Touch" and "Lucky Town" aren't only about powerful lyrics and potent images. There's so much to savor musically that you wonder which is more responsible for the two albums' remarkable triumph: his words or his wailing guitar work.

Springsteen has never, ever played the guitar with as much emotional intensity or with as deep a concern for textures, tone, and the rise and fall of tension as he does here. Whether it's the gut- rocking recklessness he displays at the end of "Human Touch's" "Gloria's Eyes" or the bluesy guitar drama heard in the "Lucky Town" tune "Big Muddy," which is guaranteed to send chill bumps up and down your spine, Springsteen finally unfurls the massive guitar muscle he's hidden all these years.

Considering all this, you'd think that there would be some serious change in the way that both "Lucky Town" and "Human Touch" sound. Monstrous guitar riffs everywhere you turn? And what, for instance, would a Springsteen record be without Max Weinberg's thunderous backbeat and Clarence Clemons' soulful sax riffs?

Though the saxophone had clearly outworn its welcome in Springsteen's music - recall there was hardly a sax presence on "Born in the USA" or "Tunnel of Love" - and isn't missed here. Springsteen had Porcaro play what Weinberg probably would have had he been involved. The beat is still big and beautiful, and it still remains a vital element in the Springsteen sound.

Aside from his astonishing guitar licks, the most obvious change in Springsteen's sound comes courtesy of bassist Jackson. Where E Street bass player Garry Tallent approached the music with a careful commitment to detail and a promise not to get in the Boss' or anyone else's way, Jackson pushes his bass way out front in many of the new songs, often competing with Springsteen's guitar for the main spotlight. The result is a terrifically contemporary, more punchy sound for every song on which Jackson contributed.

It matters little that keyboard player Roy Bittan, the only holdover from the E Street Band (aside, of course, from vocalist/wife Patti Scialfa), plays on some of the new material, as does David Sancious, the keyboardist he replaced in the band back in 1974. The same goes for the much anticipated duets with Sam Moore on "Soul Driver" and Righteous Brother Bobby Hatfield on "I Wish I Were Blind," both from "Human Touch." Though interesting, their presence on this new music has little affect on the albums' overall success.

That's because, in the end, all glory belongs to the Boss. "Lucky Town" and "Human Touch" are two magnificent works. Though the former lacks the sheer number of emotional or musical highs heard on "Human Touch," there's not a weak or shallow moment on any of its ten tracks. And when set next to "Human Touch," "Lucky Town" completes what is really an amazing portrait of Bruce Springsteen, 1992.

But it's "Human Touch" that contains the Boss' best work. From the heavily strummed notes of the title track, to the warmth and intimacy of album-ending folksong "Pony Boy," "Human Touch" is a near masterpiece. It's a work that can stand side by side with "Born to Run" or "Tunnel of Love" and not be caught in their shadows. That's an accomplishment well worth the wait.