CK Retro Review: Human Touch by Bruce SpringsteenPosted: April 28, 2014
For a guy who has remained stunningly controversy-free throughout his career, perhaps the most turbulent time in Bruce Springsteen’s career, at least with respect to his relationship with his established fans, came when he decided to disband The E Street Band and to record new music (and tour) with fresh collaborators. Human Touch, one of two albums released simultaneously in 1992, was somewhat of a letdown, but not because the “Other” band was lacking. The whole thing just seemed then like a grind at the time, and time hasn’t been kind to either the blunt-instrument production or, with a few exceptions, to Springsteen’s songwriting on the album. Here is a song-by-song review.
14. “Real Man”- The answer to the question of whether it was possible for Springsteen to write and record a lousy song. I can’t tell if the more egregious sin here is the reference to Rambo about seven years after he was culturally relevant (apparently those 57 channels were all tuned to the all-Stallone channel) or the horrendous keyboard riff (played by David Sancious in a less-than-inspired reunion) which sounds like a rehash from Dirk Diggler’s solo album. Let’s just forget this ever happened.
13. “All Or Nothing At All”- One of several tracks with dense production and scream-singing that borders on the grating.
12. “The Long Goodbye”- It has one really solid couplet: “Well I went to leave twenty years ago/Since then I guess I been packin’ kinda slow.” Other than that, well, just because a CD affords you some extra space, doesn’t mean you need to fill it.
11. “Gloria’s Eyes”- Zero melody to be found here, just a droning guitar riff and Springsteen’s monotone vocal. The lyrics are pedestrian as well.
10. “Roll Of The Dice”- Sometimes you just can’t win, especially with nitpicky listeners like myself. When Bruce attempted to dip back into a more classic Springsteen sound, as he does here with Roy Bittan’s see-sawing piano chords, it comes off more like Bob Seger (or at least a song that Seger might have handled better.) At least there’s a tune in here, for which Bittan, who co-wrote, deserves some credit.
9. “Man’s Job”- It’s catchy, which propels it above a lot of the stuff here, and even though the refrain sounds sexist, it’s really not. (He’s essentially saying that the girl belongs with someone with maturity, which the narrator thinks he possesses.) That said, even with legends Sam Moore and Bobby King on board, the whole soul testifying thing was way overdone on this album in general and on this song in particular.
8. “Pony Boy”- I’ve always found it charming. What can I say? I’m a sucker for rock stars singing to their kids.
7. “Cross My Heart”- Springsteen borrowed the title and some of the lyrics from blues legend Sonny Boy Williamson on this brooding track. It’s one of the more well-modulated musical efforts on the album and the lyrics are unfussy and focused. Nothing revelatory, but still enjoyable.
6. “Human Touch”- I think there’s a more modest and effective song, something akin to “Two Hearts” or “Tougher Than The Rest”, lurking within the lyrics. That’s what I try to find when I listen and I usually can, though it can be tough with all the needless screaming, unsubtle guitar solos, and pointless false endings. You can hear all the effort, which is something you can say about a lot of the album, and which isn’t a good thing.
5. “57 Channels (And Nothin’ On)”- It may not be the most incisive social commentary (and it sure sounds dated now that 57 channels is often the basic package.) Again, I think the setting betrays it somewhat. The whole Johnny Cash-meets-Elvis thing isn’t quite the right feel, but a Nebraska-type acoustic rave-up would have highlighted the hokey yet endearing humor. Even as it is, though, it still makes me chuckle.
4. “Soul Driver”- The metallic production deadens the impact somewhat, but this track delivers the soulful emotion that Springsteen clearly wanted to maintain throughout the album. Moore and Sancious are integrated much more artfully here as well, and there’s also an effectively downcast melody in place.
3. “Real World”- Bittan again is listed as co-writer here, and, probably not coincidentally, this is one of the tunes on the album that stands up well to repeated listens. Springsteen’s lyrics sound like therapy-based discoveries at times, but he pulls out an excellent chorus and a fiery bridge that propel this one a long way.
2. “With Every Wish”- The music, featuring evocative trumpet work from film-score whiz Mark Isham, is quite lovely, a respite from all of the heavy-handed electric tracks. The lyrics feel like autobiography with the names, places, and events changed to protect the innocent. Although it’s doubtful that he ever went catfishing in the creeks of Jersey or romanced a town beauty named Doreen, the restlessness and self-destructive tendencies seem like qualities with which Bruce was intimately familiar. The end result is a complex, relatable man made up of equal parts well-earned wariness and measured hope, which is a point we all usually reach somewhere along the line. Proof that his songwriting pen was still potent even on this disappointing release.
1. “I Wish I Were Blind”- It took a genre exercise, in this case an homage to the kind of weeper made famous by Roy Orbison, the kind in which the world crashes all around you when you see the one you love in the arms of another, to unlock the brilliant songwriter and performing artist that lay somewhat dormant on the rest of Human Touch. The appearance of The Righteous Brothers’ Bobby Hatfield singing heartbreak harmonies is the one guest appearance on the disc that appears completely seamless, and Springsteen solos with a purpose in the breaks. Most of all, this is a song that can stand alongside Orbison classics like “Crying” or “Running Scared” and not take a backseat, and there’s not much higher praise than that.
(E-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow me on Twitter @JimBeviglia. My new book, Counting Down Bruce Springsteen: His 100 Finest Songs, arrives on June 16. Pre-orders are available now.)