The Local Hero Leaves Town
Musician, 1992-05, by: Bill Flanagan
On his two new albums, "Human Touch" and "Lucky Town," Bruce Springsteen finally arrives at the place he's been running to (and sometimes from) since his first album came out in 1973. He's rich, he's got a family, his clothes are getting a little tight, and when he goes back to visit his home town, he sees his face on a black velvet painting in a shop window "between the Doberman and Bruce Lee." People anxious to fill in the details of Springsteen's biography will not be disappointed (there's a song about his wedding to Patti Scialfa, another about the birth of their first child, and one about finally doing what he said he was going to do 22 years ago - get out of New Jersey) but it would be a real shame and a big mistake to think of these as albums about Springsteen's life. What makes them good is that they are about everybody's life.
On "Human Touch" Springsteen dispenses with almost all of the specific details that have been a signature of his past lyrics. There are few place names, hardly even any characters named - the people in the songs are "You" and "I" and the locations are unspecified. That makes the songs seem at once personal and universal. This isn't Joe Roberts or Wild Billy, and it's not Atlantic City or Darlington County. These are men and women in bed, at the bar, in front of the TV - no place and every place.
And in nature. On both albums Springsteen uses nature and weather imagery to suggest the hope for some sort of salvation from the artificial and corrupt. He sings of oak boughs, cottonwood and wedding garlands, snakes, frogs and catfish, and again and again of rivers and rain, rain to end drought and rain to forgive sins. Springsteen has absorbed his Hank Williams and Louvin Brothers; he won't shrink from using a bluebird to signify happiness.
"Lucky Town" is probably the better of the two albums. Springsteen reportedly wrote and recorded it in a month in his home and played almost all of the instruments, so it's unified in a way that "Human Touch" is not. However, "Human Touch" is fascinating for the fresh musical ground it covers. "Soul Driver" takes off from a gospel base and lilts like Jimmy Cliff. "With Every Wish" is, in form and Springsteen's delivery, out of "Nebraska," but a Latin drum groove, a beautiful sweeping bass and Mark Isham's muted trumpet bring out new colors. The most compelling new color, though, is not part of an arrangement - it's the quality in Springsteen's voice when he sings "Pony Boy" for his young son. We've often heard Springsteen be tender, but never before heard him be gentle. His vocal on "Pony Boy" says more about discovering unconditional love than any lyric could.
Where will you miss the E Street Band? Probably on the string of straight rock 'n' roll tunes ("Roll of the Dice," "All or Nothing," "Man's Job," "The Long Goodbye," and "Real Man") that make up most of the second half of "Human Touch." It took the E Street Band 10 years to find the relaxed snap they brought to tracks like "I'm Goin' Down" and "Working on the Highway." The rockers here could use that easy slap and kick. But listening to this music, you can understand why Springsteen had to break up his band, why he had to move away from the northeast, maybe even why his first marriage ended. These are songs about a man who has stripped away everything from his life to try to get down to who he really is and what he really needs. It's about learning not to lie to yourself, so you won't lie to others.
When I first heard this music at the "Musician" office last week I realized that Springsteen would never again have a peak of popularity as huge as he did with "Born in the USA," because the only way to maintain that level of superstardom is to turn yourself into a cartoon. This was Springsteen's last chance to do that, and he's refused.
When I heard this music at home Friday night, with my kids running around, I realized how good it is that Springsteen is writing about the middle of life in the present tense. His "Better Days" are neither the "Glory Days" of the past nor a dream for the future. His better days are right here and now. He sings about carrying the scars and lessons of where he's been, and he acknowledges that all of life is temporary. But these songs make you feel like that's OK - if you've found a good place to be for the time being, that's plenty. That's good enough.
Today was Sunday and I drove two hundred miles into New England listening to the albums. I spent the evening seeing a band and I started back, still playing the Springsteen tapes. The more times I hear them, the more these records unfold. Now it's 2:15 in the morning and I'm two hours from home. I'm writing this review in a diner on Route 95. I know how corny all of that sounds, but distance and detachment will only get you so far. At this point I don't care whether Springsteen fades as a cultural icon or what his business dealings are like or if he lives in Beverly Hills. I'm just grateful for this real world music, and glad he's on board for the whole trip.