Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Five Small Things That Make Tunnel of Love Unforgettable

Bruce Springsteen’s 1987 Tunnel of Love, which turns 25 this year, is a masterpiece of an album with very, very few peers. As has been documented in many places, including Scott’s awesome Left of the Dial site, it is—along with Blood on the Tracks—the definitive album about the perils and pitfalls of adult relationships. Scott wonderfully described it as “an album by an adult for adults.” And that’s what it is, and one of the many reasons why it is sui generis.

Another reason, obviously, is the music. It is strongly in the running for the most melodic album Bruce ever put together, and certainly held that title at the time. The lyrics are sparse and spot on; Bruce knew what he had to say when making this record, and he says it perfectly. It just works so well musically—the lyrical splendor of “Brilliant Disguise,” the ethereal beauty of “Walk Like a Man,” the blistering and stunning solo from Nils Lofgren at the apex of the title track, and the earnest, heart-on-the-sleeve romance of “Tougher Than the Rest.” Those are just a few examples.

It is not a “depressing” record as some have described it. In fact, it very well may contain more optimism than the sprawling and raucous Born in the U.S.A. that preceded it. No, what it is is realism—at times cold, hard, bitter realism, but realism nonetheless. It has plenty of anger and sadness, but makes it clear that both are well-earned and understood. It also has slight touches of happiness and relief, and again makes it clear that those too come hard-earned. And it is rife with betrayal and resignation and self-loathing and self-realization, yet there isn’t a drop of self-pity to be found anywhere. So, depressing? No. Realistic and unflinching? You bet. And magnificent in how it pulls that off.

And here’s one more reason why it is such a triumph—it had the nearly impossible task of following up Born in the U.S.A., the album that launched Bruce from superstar to icon. He couldn’t possibly build on the oversized tones of the 1984 record, and he knew it would be folly to try. So once more, just as he did in following up that other definitive masterpiece of his, 1975’s Born To Run, Bruce turned inward.

When he did that in 1978 with Darkness on the Edge of Town, he scored a near-flawless record that damn near equaled Born to Run. It was so very different, as it had to be. But it was amazing.

And when he did it in 1987 with Tunnel of Love, he set the bar even higher and at a greater degree of difficulty. And not only did he succeed, but he even surpassed the mighty Born in the U.S.A. in quality. His ability to come through at that moment—when his personal life was falling down around him (as is evidenced by the content of the album) and with a seemingly impossible task of outdoing the record that made him a legend…well, in a career of amazing feats, this one is very close to unsurpassed.

So given all we know about Tunnel of Love, where it came from, and what a brilliant success it was, it's essential to still remember the smaller picture(s). We know the big things that made it great. We know the songs and the themes. But how about some of those littler things, the kinds we can always find on the finest of albums?

Does Tunnel of Love have its own unique touches? Its own “inner groove,” its own train whistle, its own toy police siren? Yes it does. Plenty of ‘em.

Some subtle, some not so much. Things that maybe go unnoticed or even unappreciated now, 25 years later. Various surprises sprinkled throughout the 12 songs that all serve to enhance the overall effort.

Here are five that come to mind.

The BookendsStarting with an a capella Bo Diddley beat and closing with a waltz. As unique and, frankly, oddball a choice to start and finish an album as one can find in rock's realm, specifically when it comes to an artist who so clearly invested so much in track placement. Yet it works to a tee. The opening shuffle of "Ain't Got You" is never repeated or even hinted at again, and the 3/4 time of the understated "Valentine's Day" that brilliantly closes the book is a rarity for Bruce. Two strange and rare choices that work sublimely.

The harmonies on "Tougher Than the Rest"Bruce had invested plenty of time harmonizing up to this pointhe and Steve made an artform out of it for yearsbut this was new. Very seldom did he ever lend harmonies to his slower songs, and even more seldom were the harmonies the featured portion of the song. On "Tougher Than the Rest" the harmonies, while used only at certain times, evoke the very core of the folk sound and lend rich, deep layers to this head-over-heels track. Yet they remain so decidedly rock-n-roll in nature. Certainly not the first thing you think about on the album, or maybe even the 10th, but it's there. And it's remarkable.

The harmonica on "Spare Parts"Certainly Bruce had used the harmonica before many times; to evoke triumph and/or defiance ("The Promised Land"), to paint a picture of sadness and despair ("The River," "Nebraska") or perhaps just to lay out the epic landscape he was getting ready to spotlight ("Thunder Road"). Never quite like this, starting with the fact that it's not even him—James Woods had one thing to do on this record and one thing only, and he did it with the most distorted, menacing, angry harmonica we could have imagined. The fuzzed up sounds he throws behind the melody on this, one of themost ferocious and terrifying songs in Bruce's vast canon, add a layer of seething, unquenchable rage to "Spare Parts" that very few have ever attained.

Danny’s Solo at the end of “Two Faces”—Ah, Danny. Bruce’s oldest friend in the band, and often times the most unsung. (Well, he and Garry, anyway). But it seemed fitting that as Bruce began to walk away from the E Street Band in 1987, he leaned on Danny and his organ more than any other bandmates other than Max. Danny’s playing added to the mournful feel that permeated Tunnel of Love. But then, out of the blue, on the bleak and seemingly innocuous Side Two track “Two Faces,” Danny flies in at the song’s coda with a positively bouncing, carnival-like organ that’s practically uproarious, damn near inspiring the listener to get up and dance. It’s not the first time Bruce juxtaposed upbeat music with downbeat lyrics, and it sure wasn’t the last, but it’s one of the starkest and most surprising examples that Bruce ever drew up.

Patti's appearance on "One Step Up"—It is no secret now, 25 years later, what was going on in Bruce’s personal life when he recorded Tunnel of Love. According to his most recent bio by Marc Dolan as well as others, his marriage to Julianne Phillips was all but over at this point. When Tunnel of Love finally gets around to the drawn-out, inevitable breakup, following the doubt (“Tunnel of Love”), the fighting (“Two Faces”) and the resignation that it’s falling apart (“Brilliant Disguise”), the hammer drops in the form of the finest song on the record, the heartbreakingly lovely “One Step Up.” When Bruce sings, “When I look at myself I don’t see the man I wanted to be,” we see it all in Technicolor; the man who had nothing and gained everything, even love, only it wasn’t enough. But again, it’s not a “woes me” line. It accepts the pain and the sadness, acknowledges it, and makes it part of who the singer now is. And then, as the song reaches its peak with an image of a couple dancing their lives away, though only in a rose-colored dream, Patti Scialfa emerges for the first time since the title track, practically beckoning the singer away to something new. When she responds “One step up and two steps back” to his identical line, she appears as a comely specter, a vision of what else might be out there. Given what happened with Bruce and Patti’s lives not long after the record came out, and where they are together now, the song and her gorgeous backing vocals are steeped in irony and foreshadowing. Her voice takes us all—not just the narrator, but all of us—to a different place, giving the first clue on the record that the “tunnel” may have a different way out than the singer ever envisioned.

So. Anyway. Celebrate Tunnel of Love at 25, if you get the chance. Listen to it and experience its splendor all over again. You’re likely to find even more hidden little gems inside of it.

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