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The wild hysterical potential of the early Bruce Springsteen--it's largely forgotten now, but at the time it had a lot to do with people thinking that they'd found an Elvis with a brain--was exciting but carried with it worries as well: at the time, the early and mid-70s, people were just beginning to get a perspective on some of the debilitating behavior your average rock 'n' roller could indulge in, both pharmaceutically (Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix) and artistically (Emerson, Lake and Palmer's Welcome Back, My Friends, to the Show That Never Ends, Having Fun With Elvis on Stage). Springsteen was the first pantheonic star we observed with this new perspective, and we could be forgiven for wondering where he'd be in 10 years, or 15: Dead? Brain dead? Obscure and forgotten with a career pissed away?

Remarkably, Springsteen's survived, even flourished. No one knows much about his personal life, but creatively, at least, he hasn't made any big mistakes--an all-around model rock star. With the possible exception of Live/1975-85, the rather grandiosely styled five-album live set, his public actions have been beyond reproach. But now, five years after his last studio album, Tunnel of Love, Springsteen has suddenly gifted us with two separate records, a la Guns 'n' Roses' Use Your Illusion I and II. And on the occasion of this release, you've got to wonder: on the evidence, Bruce is currently nuts. The line on the records is that Springsteen had a new album made with a bunch of hired studio hands, Human Touch, nearly ready when he went back into the studio to lay down one more track. Working solo, a fit of creativity possessed him, and he emerged with enough for a whole 'nother full-length work. Anyone in his right mind would have taken the best 10 or 12 tracks of the lot, but for Bruce nothing would do but to put out two simultaneous albums.

On listening to them both, it's apparent how this happened: Human Touch is about the worst piece of shit you can imagine coming from a talent on Springsteen's level, and he must have felt he had to do something to offset the incipient disaster. But why he had to release both albums is as unclear as why it took him five years to make one in the first place. And while the second, Lucky Town, is obviously the superior work, it sounds like what it is--a collection of hurriedly recorded demos. Impulsiveness and obsessiveness on this scale--artistic considerations aside, we're talking about a hefty percentage of Sony Music's gross 1992 sales here--does not inspire confidence in the records' maker.

The dreadfulness of the current albums notwithstanding, it's important to recognize Springsteen's special gifts: he was a scrawny New Jersey wharf rat who made himself, over obstacles both endemic and personal, the ultimate and nonpareil practitioner of romanticization in rock music, and he did it with such flair and personal charm that I don't think many of us will ever forget the sheer and guilt-free pleasure we got out of him. You know the evolution of his work: from the hepcat portraits of small-town lowlifes (Killer Joe, Hazy Davy, Sticker and the gunner) and their rather one-dimensional female counterparts (Mary, Terry, Jane) to quieter and occasionally luminous meditations on what they became: small-town lowlifes who grew up, got married, and started hating their lives. In the early songs his heroes sought escape: not because life was really so bad, you understand (I don't think lines like "Baby this town rips the bones off your back" were meant as anything more than melodrama) but because it was the thing to do, the only gesture grand enough to match the bursting feeling in their hearts. All of this was everything everyone said it was at the time: overwrought but somehow lovely, wildly democratic (anyone can dream--it's free), fabulously retro, and enormous fun.

For a while. As Springsteen got older (he turned 35 amid the Born in the U.S.A. hoopla) he started getting more serious about the implications of what he was writing about; as he said on the overlooked introduction to a 1988 acoustic version of "Born to Run," "I realized that after I'd put all these people in cars, I had to figure out some place for them to go." Where they got, of course, was pretty close to back where they started, but now the picture included a wife and a job and maybe a kid or two. This sort of construction is of course exceedingly sexist, but Bruce's attitude toward women has always been about as complicated as his attitude toward cars. Accordingly, in the more mature parts of his later work--reaching back to 1980's The River, but mostly Born in the U.S.A., Tunnel of Love, and the new albums--Springsteen has focused on the pitted emotional and psychological landscape of life and love among the working class in the Reagan years.

Now, this shift was lost on a lot of people, and no wonder: the arena-sized Bruce had an accompanying arena-sized persona; it took a while to move it, but move it he did. In Tunnel of Love, he even began to contemplate happiness and hope. "Some may want to die young, man / Young and gloriously / Get it straight now mister / Hey buddy that ain't me." Two years later, he was even more explicit, as he bade an unapologetic but sad farewell to his early characters on that acoustic "Born to Run" and specifically disassociated himself from those who wanted to "run, and keep on runnin'": "I realized that in the end individual freedom, when it's not connected to some sort of community, or friends, or the world outside, ends up being pretty meaningless."

It's a bit difficult to discuss the album Springsteen intended to release by itself, Human Touch. What do you do with a record that features one of the most vital rock stars in the world playing in a band with the drummer from Toto? Here's what's wrong with the record: (1) The cover sucks. (2) Of the 14 tracks, I count one passable Springsteen song, "The Long Goodbye." The lyrics don't make much sense, and Springsteen used to give songs like this to Greg Kihn, but it has a bruising musical onslaught that covers up a lot. (3) "57 Channels (And Nothin' On)" is a song about TV. The conceit of the song's climax ("So I bought a .44 Magnum it was solid steel cast / And in the blessed name of Elvis well I just let it blast") is so tired that even Bob Dylan, not exactly a zeitgeist bronco buster these days, used it two years ago. (4) The song "Real World" ends with these lines:

I wanna find some answers I wanna ask for some help

I'm tired of runnin' scared

Baby let's get our bags packed

We'll take it here to hell and heaven and back

And if love is hopeless hopeless at best

Come on put on your party dress it's ours tonight

And we're goin' with the tumblin' dice

I count five or six different and sometimes contradictory intents here, and nearly a dozen identifiable cliches. John Cougar Mellencamp--no, Bryan Adams--writes better songs than this. (5) "Man's Job" (the chorus goes "Lovin' you's a man's job") is the most toothless song Bruce has recorded since "Mary Queen of Arkansas," in 1973, on his first album, Greetings From Asbury Park. It's obvious that Bruce is laboring mightily to inject some irony and subtext to make the song a little less stupid than it sounds, but he fails miserably. There's an interesting side issue here: one of the weirdest things about Springsteen's super-duper-stardom is how, for a while at least, he lost control of his message; it seemed, for example, like half of America thought that "Born in the U.S.A." was a statement of pride rather than what it was, a song about emptiness, reproach, and despair. To this day few of the people who sing along to the chorus of "Glory Days" can tell you that it's about small-town losers living in the past. This is only partly Springsteen's fault, and he's expended a lot of energy since regaining control. So why is he throwing this provocative chorus to the cheap seats? Even if he had established a subtext in "Man's Job" it probably wouldn't matter; for all intents and purposes the song would remain a boring statement of callow virility. (6) Wait a minute--did I just say "Man's Job" was the worst song Springsteen has ever recorded? I meant to say that "Real Man" was. Here, Springsteen has slapped a new vocal track over a recording that was apparently stolen from the studio where Huey Lewis and the News record. Boy, is Huey going to be mad when he finds out. (7) The overall feel of the record is rock lite: huge groups of songs go by with all the force of a Rupert Holmes record. The tasty horn charts and synth blats on "Real Man" push the outside of the envelope, but the adult contemporary stylings on songs like "Human Touch" and "Cross My Heart" are right up there. (8) Also, large parts of the record are formulaic: a "Tougher Than the Rest" rewrite ("I Wish I Were Blind"), a "When You're Alone" rewrite ("With Every Wish"), the obligatory up-tempo call for some love action along the lines of "Cover Me" ("All or Nothin' at All"), the VH-1-ready ballad in the tradition of "Brilliant Disguise" ("Human Touch"). (9) Rockers? Uh-uh. With the exception of "The Long Goodbye," Bruce doesn't rock on this album. He droops.

Lucky Town, recorded almost entirely by Springsteen and drummer Gary Mallabar, has a similarly ugly cover but is a much more interesting beast, primarily because of the potency of the first three numbers. "Better Days" is a terrific singing exercise, with Bruce's straining voice pitched high and wide from the very start. The song is a begrudging acknowledgement of his success; he even admits that he doesn't have much to complain about these days: "Now a life of leisure and a pirate's treasure / Don't make much for tragedy." (The lines reminded me of my favorite couplet from Tunnel of Love: in "Ain't Got You," the a cappella goof that kicks off the album, he sings "Well I've been around the world and all across the seven seas / Been paid a king's ransom for doing what comes naturally.") "Lucky Town," which follows, is another singing workout, but here his voice has a folky New Depression whine as he enunciates yet another paean to some lovable loser. Both the vocal and musical tracks are so good that you don't notice that the bridge is a little out there:

I had some victory that was just failure in deceit

Now the joke's comin' up through the soles of my feet

I been a long time walking on fortune's cane

Tonight I'm steppin' lightly and feelin' no pain

Obviously there's some kind of shoe or foot imagery going on here that I'm not getting the point of, but I'm not sure I want to either. You can make the argument that Springsteen's never been an overly precise or mannered lyricist, and that the palpable force of his early songs came out of the cumulative texture of the lyrics and the force of the characters' delivery rather than this or that line. But leaving aside a patently epic work like "Born in the U.S.A.," even the more interesting of his lesser songs--"Dancing in the Dark," say--are coherent and focused and use moments of catharsis ("I'm dying for some action") to rivet themselves to your brain. I don't hear moments like that here; "Lucky Town" is interesting despite the lyrics, rather than because of them.

The third song, "Local Hero," has a bouncy, "Glory Days"-ish chorus, but the lyric is some sort of existential nonsense that just sort of trails off. These three songs could have made a respectable anchor to a strong album, and your hopes are high when "Local Hero" finishes; but the record's illegitimate beginnings soon take their toll, and formula returns to the fore. "My Beautiful Reward" has that lite rock feel, and sounds too much like "Book of Dreams," which itself uses the same shy-and- lovable voice as "If I Should Fall Behind," which itself is reminiscent of Tunnel of Love's "Walk Like a Man." No less than three songs--"Better Days," "Living Proof," and "Souls of the Departed"--begin with the same chord strummed the same way. (Those of you with remotes for your CD players, play the first few seconds of tracks one, seven, and nine.) What themes there are on the record--a sort of catholic wonder and love of life (this is Bruce the dad and husband talking) alternating with the usual fears and worries of the characters in Springsteen's ongoing New Jersey gothic--never come alive. "You shot through my anger and rage," Springsteen sings. "To show me my prison was just an open cage." This may be autobiographical, but who cares?

Now, a lot of people think that Springsteen is living proof that rock 'n' roll can change to accommodate the needs of a maturing audience that's grown out of a youthful infatuation with dissonance, anger, escape, and protest. It's not that by changing Springsteen has lost his edge or his rock 'n' roll credentials; I understand what he's trying to do, and basically I respect it. But nobody could argue that he's doing it well. The loss of urgency, grandeur, and, not least, humor that has accompanied this movement in Springsteen's work is unmistakable. Springsteen can feel it too, which is why these records and the process by which they came into being are so lame. The confusion and disarray that produced the overkill of these two largely flaccid albums doesn't speak well for Springsteen's own confidence in whatever it is he thinks he's doing these days. It's just a mid-life crisis acted out in public, and it's not pretty.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Paul Natkin.

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