CK Retro Review: Tunnel Of Love by Bruce SpringsteenPosted: April 24, 2014
It’s quite amazing that Bruce Springsteen had achieved such success for the first decade or so of his recording career while eschewing, for the most part, the one topic most common in popular music: Relationships. That all changed in 1987 when he gave a deep-dish treatise on the subject matter with Tunnel Of Love. Springsteen grounded most of the E Street Band for the project to streamline his sound and put more emphasis on his lyrics, which dissected adult romance with equal parts deep emotion and searing candor. It’s so well-written that, depending on where your mind and heart are at, you might find it either a paean to love or a testament to why it just isn’t worth the pain. Here is a song-by-song review.
12. “All That Heaven Will Allow”- The Boss must have sensed that an album of complete doom and gloom would have turned off the romantics in the audience. That’s why changes of pace like this endearingly sweet ode to romantic faith are so crucial to the overall success of the album, even if on its own it can’t compare with some of the darker narratives.
11. “Two Faces”- Springsteen intentionally references the old Lou Christie hit “Two Faces Have I” with the lyrics and even turns in a little Farfisa solo to enhance the 60’s feel. But, as is often the case with this album, there is something lurking underneath the cool exterior. In this case, it’s the narrator’s admission of inconsistent behavior towards his girl that borders on a split personality.
10. “Spare Parts”- Bruce was looking for a kind of back-porch immediacy in the recording, which he achieves with the help of guest player James Wood on harmonica. The story falls somewhere between parable and cautionary tale, and although it’s not the most subtle piece of songwriting Springsteen has ever produced, it still manages to pull you in.
9. “When You’re Alone”- Some might consider this a minor track, and maybe it is considering the heady company it keeps on this album, but there’s a vulnerability to it that I really enjoy. Springsteen gives a tender vocal performance of lyrics that are unshowy but affecting. Having E Streeters Clarence Clemons, Nils Lofgren, and Patti Scialfa on backing vocals makes any bouts of loneliness the narrator might suffer much easier to bear.
8. “Ain’t Got You”- By putting this song right up front as the opener, Springsteen is bestowing upon it a level of importance that clues in the audience to listen closely. He then opens up about the benefits of stardom, a stunning bit of honesty for this champion of the common man. Yet even this modern-day King Farouk can’t buy himself love. It’s interesting that, when you take this song on its own, it’s pretty benign. When you consider all that follows it, turbulent undertones bubble to the surface.
7. “Walk Like A Man”- Again, we’ve got Springsteen writing with insight about the father-son relationship. And again, the music is unobtrusive, just an excuse to let Bruce tell his story. One of the great things about Springsteen’s body of work is that you can follow it through the years and spot the progression of different storylines and common themes. In this case, where there once was bitterness and raw emotions between the son and his Dad, now there is understanding and acceptance. Even if some of the old wounds still sting a bit, the happy occasion of the wedding soothes them almost into nonexistence.
6. “Valentine’s Day”- Probably the most enigmatic track on the album, and all the more intriguing because of it. Set to a loping pace and accompaniment that sounds like a moonlit night, the song sends Springsteen out on the highway where he’s been so many times before, but he barely notices his surroundings this time. Instead, he gets lost in contemplation about the joy of fatherhood, the fear of isolation, and his dreams of death, all of which eventually reinforce his commitment to getting home to his “lonely valentine.” In its acknowledgement of the darkness and embrace of the light, it’s the perfect closing track.
5. “Tunnel Of Love”- The title track is an expert example of metaphor in songwriting. This ride is exciting, dark, scary, funny, and extremely confusing, and Springsteen intimates that people should expect no less when they dive headlong into a relationship. With help from Roy Bittan’s shimmering synthesizers and Nils Lofgren’s wailing guitar, the music also niftily conjures a romantic ride that runs the risk of careening wildly out of control. “It ought to be easy,” the man says. It’s not easy, but it certainly ain’t dull.
4. “Tougher Than The Rest”- Here is another example of Springsteen shifting towards a more upbeat message without betraying the overall thematic bent of the album. His narrator here may be tough, but that toughness is borne out of heartaches suffered and lessons learned. There is also no promise of a happy ending, just a commitment to the attempt. Max Weinberg’s steadfast drumming reflects the intentions of the narrator, while Springsteen delivers the vocal with controlled intensity. You get the feeling that this would have been a hit of Bruce had pushed it in that direction.
3. “One Step Up”- The car won’t start, the birds won’t sing, and it’s all your fault. OK, it’s not that simple, because the narrator here seems willing to accept that he’s part of the endless cycle of fighting and recrimination that is slowly swallowing this couple whole. And instead of digging in his heels and trying to save the relationship, the dude heads off to a bar and starts scouting the local talent. But before he crosses the Rubicon of adultery, he indulges in an idealized memory/dream of his relationship that will never be again and probably never was to start. At that point, Patty Scialfa comes aboard for some ghostly backing vocals that are meant to haunt and not to soothe. The lyrics are pure country, the arrangement is elegant adult contemporary, and the sum total is irresistibly heartbreaking.
2. “Cautious Man”- When you inspect this brooder, you realize that nothing much happens action-wise. To onlookers, there probably seem to be only glad tidings in the turn of events that leads Bill Horton to marriage and stability. But Springsteen gives us his inner monologue, which the character never reveals to anyone, let alone his new bride. Those hidden thoughts reveal a man unable to stand the prosperity into which he stumbled, steered by the torment inside him toward destroying this redemptive love. Springsteen spares us the bitter end, but he does his job so well that we know that one of Billy’s moonlight rides will lead him right into oblivion. This is one of those sublime album tracks by Bruce that the casual fan might now know and should immediately seek out to hear a songwriting master class.
1. “Brilliant Disguise”- Springsteen managed to earn one of his biggest pop hits with one of his bleakest sets of lyrics. This was achieved in part by the tightness of the music and the melancholy grandeur of the melody, Bruce soaring into Orbisonian territory while Weinberg brings the timpani down on his head. Neither of the protagonists in this relationship are showing all their cards, but these games elevate to the point that the subterfuge overwhelms all the genuine feelings that might have brought them together in the first place. As they continually deceive each other and themselves, their love turns into something sinister and destructive. Hey, this isn’t for the faint of heart, but the punch of the recording combined with the sting of the lyrics makes this, pound-for-pound, one of Springsteen’s most powerful efforts.
(E-mail me at email@example.com or follow me on Twitter @JimBeviglia. My new book, Counting Down Bruce Springsteen: His 100 Finest Songs, arrives in June and is available now at all major online booksellers.)