Should Bruce Springsteen Be Forgiven?

Tunnel of Love

(Columbia, 1987)

The gelled hair, black suit and bolo tie on the album cover, flanked by a hot white coupe on a sunny beach that bears no resemblance to the grim Jersey shore. The mega-success of Born in the U.S.A. and its unintended association with Ronald Reagan. The tabloid marriage to statuesque Hollywood blond Julianne Phillips. The slick, synth-heavy production that relegated the E Street Band to cameo status. It was all so big-buck schmuck, so un-Boss — it was the album Tunnel of Love, which sent Springsteen loyalists into a decade-long tailspin of bitterness concerning their erstwhile ­working-class hero.

Stripped of this context, however, Tunnel of Love is actually an exceptional collection of songs, an often dark, dynamic emotional roller coaster to fit right alongside the amusement park allusion in the title. Simply put, the album is a referendum on the Boss' short-lived marriage to Phillips. Its first track, "Ain't Got You," is a folky, harmonica-only cock tease in which Springsteen boasts that he's got all the riches in the world, save for the ultimate prize: a lifelong love. Next, the similarly cocky yet subtly tender "Tougher Than the Rest" sees Spring­steen wooing his bride-to-be, a courtship that proves successful in the sweet, snappy "All That Heaven Will Allow."

Following this appetizing opening salvo is a trio of songs that constitute the album's weakest quarter and have little if anything to do with its amorous theme. But then, with the tongue-in-cheek title track, the Boss gets back to his relationship with Phillips and the troubles therein. "It ought to be easy, ought to be simple enough," sings Springsteen. "Man meets woman and they fall in love / But the house is haunted and the ride gets rough / And you've got to learn to live with what you can't rise above."

"Two Faces" and "Brilliant Disguise" continue in this vein, with Springsteen growing ever angrier with the state of his union. This is a great pair of songs, but they pale in comparison to the album's heart-wrenching, snail-paced final quarter, which sees Springsteen throwing in the towel on his marriage. "One Step Up," "When You're Alone" and "Valentine's Day" are haunting, gorgeous ballads that are apt to drive a broken man to tears, as personal and vulnerable a trio of tracks as the Boss has ever recorded. If they can't redeem this period of Springsteen's career in the eyes of diehards, then nothing can. — Mike Seely

Born in the U.S.A.

(Columbia, 1984)

Given that Born in the U.S.A. was a mammoth commercial success on par with Thriller or Nevermind, it sounds rather ridiculous to call it underrated. Seven Top-10 singles and 15 million copies sold can't be called a flop. However, when you view the Springsteen catalog through the hipster prism, it most certainly is undervalued. It really just isn't very cool to admit you love the record with his denim-covered ass on the cover.

Nebraska, Born to Run, The River and Darkness on the Edge of Town are frequently cited as influential records by the growing legion of contemporary indie acts who revere the Boss (the Hold Steady, Arcade Fire and Eric Bachman, to name just a few), but 1984's Born in the U.S.A. remains tainted by its association with the golden age of MTV, questionable album artwork and the evergreen misinterpretations of the title track as some sort of chest-thumping conservative anthem (and of course, just like Van Halen that same year, Springsteen committed a cardinal sin by pulling synthesizers into the mix).

But once you cleanse your palate of all that Reagan-era bitterness, it's quite easy to see why the record connected with such a broad audience, and almost more significantly, how it's actually a pretty subversive, innovative effort. The title track — an anguished tirade about the hollowness of the American dream and the ugly realities of the Vietnam War — is an obvious anchor, and "Dancing in the Dark," with its Brian De Palma–directed video, crystalline sax solo and restless, everyman energy, is foolproof pop gold, but it's actually the quietly smoldering centerpiece that really makes the record a creative step forward for New Jersey's chosen son.

Clocking in at just over two-and-a-half minutes long, "I'm on Fire" is the album's shortest song, and it represents the debut of an entirely new topic for Springsteen: the frank and graphic discussion of sex. "Making love in the dirt with crazy Janey" (from Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J.'s "Spirit in the Night") and his countless ruminations about girls named Mary were romantic snapshots, not outright lascivious observations. The core of what makes Spring­steen an iconic, enduring songwriter is his unflinching honesty about human foibles, and spelling out clearly what it feels like to be entirely driven by lust is a critical component of telling those truths. — Hannah Levin

Human Touch

(Columbia, 1992)

Who would dare defend Human Touch? Tunnel of Love, Born in the U.S.A., sure. But Human Touch? Arguably the flattest and most lifeless of all Springsteen albums?

Human Touch was released simultaneously with Lucky Town, the latter inarguably the superior. Of all the songs Springsteen wrote at this time, he put the best ones on Lucky Town, leaving Human Touch to resemble a chubby, lazy little brother, the Billy Carter of the two.

Supposedly, the songs on Human Touch were Springsteen's attempts at rescuing himself from writer's block. It's an interesting theory. What the hell, at this point in his career, did he have to write about? He was fucking rich, married with kids, had absolutely everything he needed and then some. But he couldn't really write about that, could he?

If merely posing Miami Vice-style on the cover of Tunnel of Love pissed off his blue-collar followers, how would they react if he then turned around and sang to them about the travails of a ­multimillionaire?

Unfortunately, Human Touch's slick production aptly reflects Springsteen's healthy financial state. It's full of cheesy synthesizers, bulbous bass and razor-sharp snare drum snaps. This is, without a doubt, the album's biggest turnoff. Much of it sounds like generic rock for Izod-clad middle-aged men driving Mazda convertibles in Uptown.

And yet I still predict Human Touch will be better appreciated with hindsight. Like Dylan, even at his worst, Springsteen always has a certain magic. Sure, Human Touch contains lyrics like "Baby let me be your soul driver" (???), but it also includes "Real World," a fantastic song about lovers losing their luck, and personal favorite "57 Channels (And Nothin' On)."

On the latter, the Boss evokes a humid, brooding mood similar to that of "State Trooper" from Nebraska. But "57 Channels" is like "State Trooper"'s flip side; we go from a man who has nothing watching a cop tail him in the rearview mirror to a man who has too much and is still discontent. This is, to me, one real proof of Spring­steen's greatness. When he was broke and struggling, he was the working-man's poet. And when he hit it big, he was still capable of pulling chilling lyrics from the depths of his financially secure soul. — Brian J. Barr

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Brian J. Barr
Hannah Levin
Mike Seely
Contact: Mike Seely