Review Summary: The Boss gets married to a model/actress and soon after fails at marriage and decides to sing about it. Heartfelt, real, and very knowing Bruce searches his soul on Tunnel Of Love and comes up empty. He may not feel good, but it makes for great art.
In mid 1984 after an extended break which came at the end of The River tour and the release of an accidental, near classic demo tape called Nebraska in 1982, Bruce Springsteen finally released the album that would help cement his place in Rock n Roll history for the ages. Born In The USA, or as Bruce likes to call it, "that rock record" released in mid 1984 amidst the Reagan era in America and a recession in the American economy, was a shot of twangy, stripped down homespun rock n roll heard around the country and around the world. Polished, loud, at times bombastic, and less soulful then the records which came before it, it was a direct bullseye of a rock n roll record. It didn't matter that the songs were written for the most part at the same time the songs for the dark and desperate Nebraska were written, or that in large part lyrically they were similarly downbeat and desperate, if not quite as dark. The music snapped, crackled and popped, the American flag was draped across the cover, and an all american homeboy from New Jersey was inviting you to come along for the ride and dance away all your worries and concerns about economic hardship, the cold war, and a county divided by politics. Born In The USA was the right album at the right time, and after years of hard work and even harder touring, Bruce was a bonafide rock n roll household name and superstar at last. The train that had been coming for the past decade had finally arrived for Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band. And they rode it for all it was worth.
But with success of this kind also comes the trappings of success. And among those trappimgs are women. A lot of women. Bruce was never known as a groupie hound or rock n roll party dude. It was the music that mattered to him, and for the most part he had the image of someone on the straight and narrow. Women came and women went, and he had in his past a couple of steady but discreet girlfriends as well. But like the cover of Tom Waits "Jersey Girl" he would sometimes perform live suggests, when Bruce settled down he would surely pick a rose from the garden of New Jersey, right" How could he not" He was Jersey born and bred, through and through. Well, wrong. Caught up in his own success and what a "Rockstar" is supposed to do, Bruce met and married Hollywood model/actress Julianne Philips soon after he was introduced to her. And whatever his real motive for doing so, it was a mistake that would shape this album and his next two to come, and in fact change his artistic, creative, and spiritual life for many years.. And it is the Tunnel Of Love album that got those wheels of change turning.
Tunnel Of Love gets started on familiar Springsteen ground with the solo acoustic rave up "Ain't Got You". But something is different in the lyrics. Sung from a first person perspective rather then creating a character or story as is often the case with Bruce, it'a tense tale of a man who seemingly has it all except the one thing that would make it all worth it: The woman of his choice and desire. Never one to represent in song those who have "all the riches any man ever knew" and still not satisfied, the listener is brought to wonder just who the subject of the song is as Springsteen huffs and puffs frustratedly into the mic. But by songs end it becomes clear as the lines "I been all around the world and across the seven seas/Been paid a kings ranson for doing what comes naturally" clearly exposes the singer as his own subject. After this acoustic rave up the listener is prepared for an explosion. Afterall, this is the guy who has been rocking around the world for the past three and a half years. The Boss. Certainly he has come to keep the rock n roll train moving" And he's off to a fiery start. "1-2-3-4- I was Born In The USA, Part 2" is certainly up next, right" Nope. And so the turn away from his past begins.....
An album of three parts really, what we get first is very much typical Springsteen, however unexpected or different then what we've gotten on his previous 7 albums. The stark acoustic treatment of "Ain't Got You" gives way to big drums and lush keyboards for the next song up, and the album gets off to it's real start after a somewhat curious opener. "Tougher Then The Rest" is a mid-tempo ballad with a country flavor built around twangy guitar, harmonica, and strong direct vocals that leave no doubt about it's statements of romantic commitment. The guy in the song making his plea is certainly no prize for most, but he's ready to offer what he has to give, and promises to be true and steady to the object of his affection. "All you have to do is say yes" is his only condition, and it's as heartfelt an offering as he can muster to someone he recognizes might need someone or something just like him. It's an all or nothing, take what you can get kind of romantic offering. But he's willing to stick it out if only given a chance. Or walk away if not.
The E Street Band make their first appearance on the album for the dirty in Texas rocker "Spare Parts" that kicks off the next segment of the album. "Bobby said he'd pull out/Bobby stayed in" kicks the song off, and you can guess the rest. The band plays it straight and true with just a hint of danger and forboding flair, and it suits this cautionary tale to a tee. Ultimitely a song about moving on at all cost and simply playing the cards that are dealt you (and that you have dealt yourself) "Spare Parts" could of easily fit somewhere on The River LP that came several years before. Desperate, lonely and dispairing, Bruce does here what he has done so many times before, making a heroine out of the young lady stuck between a rock and a hard place and having her find redemption by putting away her past and moving on by songs end. This, for all intents and purposes is a valentine to all the single mothers out there who have ever wanted to take it all back if only they could. And the message seems to be you can still find reason, purpose, and meaning to go on even if built from the broken pieces of your past. The only real rocker on the album (and one of only two where he utilizes his entire band) this is familiar ground for the songwriter and he hits the nail on the head. And The E Street Band back him up nicely all the way through.
The first half of the album ends with what is perhaps Bruce's most personal and revealing song up until this point in his career, and it also marks a change in tone for the record. Coming after the "newly in love" songs that began the album and the cautionary tales of Spare Parts and Cautious Man, Walk Like A Man is the first time on the record where Bruce becomes reflective about his own experiances with the fear and trepidation that something like marraige can bring. A song about losing the innocence of childhood but not being quite sure of yourself as an adult entering life with another, Walk Like A Man is a tender ballad that explores the questions of what it means to be committed to something that is larger then you, and your responsibilty to that commitment. Ultimatley a song about a boy and his father, Bruce has gone down this road before, as he and his dad were often at odds with each other, and he had written songs before inspired by his father. Here, he seems to let go of those differences to realize he perhaps needs some of what his father once had that used to divide them to get through the task at hand. And as he sings "Well tonite you step away from me and alone at the alter I stand/As I watch my bride coming down the aisle I pray for the strength to walk like a man", while at the beginning of the song he recalled "Being five years old following behind you at the beach tracing your footprints in the sand/Trying to walk like a man", you understand things have come full circle for the singer, but that perhaps he isn't quite ready to take those steady steps that are nessesary to see the job through. So although he speaks with resolve by songs end, the meloncholy tone of the music and the reflective lyrics leave you with the impression that enough doubt still remains to bring it all crumbling down.
The E Street Band make their second appearance for the next song and it is interesting to note that they never play as a full group on the album, making this for all intents and purposes a Bruce Springsteen "solo" album in the truest sense of the word. He plays all instruments (including drums) except where otherwise noted, and the saxaphone of Clarence Clemons, which had been a staple of the E Street Band sound for over ten years, is nowhere to be found whatsover. In fact, seven of the twelve songs are performed by Bruce alone, and yet on others various members show up as what seems to be token gestures at best. It has been said that Tunnel Of Love is a Springsteen album for people who don't like Bruce Springsteen, as well as for people who do. And his 90 degree turn away from his band may be one of the biggest reasons why. No longer tied to expectations of what or who he is supposed to be as a recording artist, the album finds him touching on themes and exploring sounds that up until now you would never associate with Bruce in the past. And he pulls the entire thing off with uniform brilliance.
But it's the stirring title track and next three songs after which are the true heart of the album. "Tunnel Of Love" "Two Faces" "Brilliant Disguise" and "One Step Up", each of which are about the deception we sometimes lose ourselves in for the sake of love or the illusion of love, are among the best songs ever written by the songwriter. "Two Faces", about making promises you can't hope to keep and hurting the one you love in spite of your best intentions, in spite of yourself (or perhaps because of yourself), and the inability to do anything about it, finds Bruce sorrowful, defiant, and confused despite knowing exactly what the problem is. "One that laughs/One that cries/One says hello/One says goodbye/One does things I don't understand/Makes me feel like half a man" is all he can make of it, and he seems helpless to do anything about it except challenge himself in futile self posturing against it, while he hurts the one he loves and breaks the promises once so easily made. "One Step Up" similarly finds him struggling with trying to measure up to ideals and principles he was was once so sure of and finding that these cannot be applied to matters of the heart, and it is these matters of the heart that can take those things from you if you don't watch your step. "When I look at myself I don't see/The man I wanted to be/Somewhere along the line I slipped off track/I'm caught moving one step up and two steps back" he sings before describing being lonely and tempted to adultery by some random girl in a bar while he pretends to be unattached. Certainly these are not the thoughts and words of a man newly wedded to a beautiful Hollywood actress and model. But they were Bruce at that moment in time. And "Brilliant Disguise", perhaps the most boldly revealing and truthful song Springsteen has ever committed to record, lays it all to rest by expressing doubt about everything from his wedding night to his wife to himself to the words of his best man on his wedding day, and ending the song with the lyric of "God have mercy on the man/Who doubts what he is sure of".
Tunnel Of Love is significant as an album and interesting as a document not because it is a groundbreaking work or Springsteen's best album. But because it is the sound of an artist leaving his past behind, closing the door on old things, and opening a door to new ones. With this album we saw many things for this guy we call "The Boss" come to an end. It was the beginning of the end of his band whom we all came to know him by, it was the beginning of the end of his marriage which he had put so much faith in, and it was the beginning of the end of the way he had connected with his audience for most of his career. No longer feeling like a "man of the people" after all the glory and riches his stardom had thrust upon him, Springsteen picked up the broken pieces of faith and hope he had once thought were so firmly in his grasp and started looking for a new common ground from where he could make that contact once again. And never again on record would he ever be Born To Run, Born In The USA, or hiding out on the Backstreets. Instead over his next two albums and even to this day he would focus his music on faith, love, a place to call home, and the joys that love and family can bring despite losses and hardship. No longer running, this album is the sound of an artist finally growing up. And giving all who are willing to grow up with him something new to believe in.