Human Touch/Lucky Town

Q, 1992-04, by: David Hepworth
Human Touch * * * * * Lucky Town * * * *
After managing only three LPs of new material in the last 10 years, Bruce Springsteen suddenly bowls up with two on the same day. Unlike Guns N' Roses Use Your Illusion 1 and 2, this is not simply a way of off-loading a glut of material. Springsteen has traditionally recorded more than required and either parceled out the surplus on B-sides or, more frequently, held songs over until they could be found an appropriate home. In rejecting early band recordings of the Nebraska material in favour of releasing the original demos and in sequencing the 40 tracks of his mid '80s live set without including an obvious hit like Glory Days because it "didn't fit", Springsteen has underscored his conviction that an album exists to tell a story and should have no less integrity and structural unity than a novel.

Human Touch has been in the works for over a year. It's his first West Coast record and marks the official termination of a 15-year relationship with the E Street Band. Keyboadist Roy Bittan is the only former member still involved and most tracks use the rhythm section of studio heavyweights Jeff Porcaro and Randy Jackson. Springsteen plays all the lead guitar, there is no saxaphone and little of the romantic swell and pop filigree of E Street music. From its bellicose drum sound (played loud, recorded louder), tough-as-teak guitars and roaring vocals to the blunt, unambiguous lyrics, Human Touch is raw but nevertheless ambitious stuff, with no place for arty euphemism or rockular evasions.

Tunnel Of Love placed just enough distance between his own and his characters' lives to allow the listener to find the record absorbing without feeling like a spectator at a terrible accident. In the time since then he has had his first marriage go publicly awry (a song he wrote for Southside Johnny last year opened with the sober admission "I know what it's like to have failed...with the whole world looking on"), married Patti Scialfa and seen the birth of his first two children at an age when many of his fellow forty-somethings are dealing with adolescent offspring. Human Touch is not wasting much time disguising its inspiration: its themes are love, disaster, humiliation and recovery; its text might as well be taken from The Book Of Soul, in which it is written that the wise man eventually and painfully learns the difference between those things which are desirable and those which are needful.

There are few of the familiar pit stops of the old songs, the topical and geographical references. Instead, Springsteen navigates a classical landscape of the heart, as mythical and ghostly as the blasted topography of gospel music, with its rivers and forests, its prisons and cages and bread from the skies. Thus it is fitting that Sam Moore and Bobby King are providing the vocal afterburners on songs like Soul Driver and Man's Job. Like Elvis Costello on Get Happy!, Springsteen on Human Touch draws strength from banging up against the great vigiur of Stax and Atlantic R&B.

The keynotes are the title song, with its regal three-chord figure (doubtless written as a live show opener) and tongue-in-cheek automotive reference to "a little touch-up, a little paint"; the howling feverish rocker Gloria's Eyes and its suggestion of the betrayal of a lover, an admirer and maybe even a fan; Man's Job, in which he gets near to his dream of singing like Roy Orbison; finally, I Wish I Were Blind where, with the assistance of Righteous Brother Bobby Hatfield, he finds and sustains the pitch and panache required to bring off as tragically romantic a song as he's ever composed. Following Real Man, a close relation of the stage favorite I'm A Coward When It Comes To Love, he appends an acoustic version of the traditional children's song Pony Boy, at which point the younger end of his following will probably give him up for good.

Where rock'n'roll was built upon the cult of he who is misunderstood, both Human Touch and its companion record Lucky Town deal with the man who misunderstands himself. There are no father or mother, no boss or President songs here. On Better Days, the opening track of Lucky Town, he squarely concedes that a millionaire rock star's life "don't make much for tragedy" while confessing that "it's a sad man...who's living in his own skin and can't stand the company".

Lucky Town came about when he went into the studio intending to complete Human Touch and found the material pouring forth. Most tracks feature Randy Jackson and, significantly, a vocal trio made up of Lisa Lowell, Patti Scialfa and Soozie Tyrell. Where Human Touch is dense and highly worked, Lucky Town has an infectious swagger characterized by the gospel chorusing of the female voices, hammering acoustic guitars and comparatively loose delivery. There are more smiles here, and certainly less desperation.

Local Hero sends up the cult of his own personality, If I Should Fall Behind is a curious song of romantic dedication and Book Of Dreams takes us right through his recent wedding day with altogether unblinking sentimentality. Were it not for the inclusion of the angry Souls Of The Departed, which links the dead on the road to Basra with the victims of LA's gang wars and the fate of their own son, and the deceptively serene My Beautiful Reward, it would be tempting to try and stand Lucky Town up as Springsteen's wedding present to his wife. Compared to Human Touch's 14 songs, Luck Town's 10 fly by like an EP.

Its high water mark is Living Proof, a number which is, in its way, quite as deeply felt and ringing as Born To Run; but where the latter offered the mirage of escape, Living Proof suggests flight from a self-made prison through, the forgiveness provided by the birth of a child.

Like much of these two LPs, Living Proof is Springsteen the unembarrasable doing what he does best, occupying the moment he's traveling through, illuminating it with sheer strength of feeling and projecting it That Big to communicate with a massive audience.

On the way, both albums have their misfires, their occasional lapses into kitsch and sometimes a lack of harmonic color, but as the age span of the rock audience grows too wide to be meaningfully encompassed by any one artist, they find Springsteen thundering off into middle age, leading with his chin, his recklessness unimpaired.