No matter how you look at it, Bruce Springsteen has gone through a lot in the last four and a half years.
First his marriage, which seemed the centerpiece of his last album, "Tunnel of Love," shattered like a fumbled 45 when
Springsteen left actress-model Julianne Phillips for bandmate Patti Scialfa, who not only became the new Mrs. S. but also the mother of his son (Evan James) and daughter (Jessica Rae).
Then, as if the upheavals in his personal life weren't trauma enough, Springsteen up and fired the E St. Band. Granted, he hadn't made a full album with the group since 1984's "Born in the U.S.A." ("Tunnel of Love" was essentially a solo album, with various E Streeters in cameo roles), but the fact that many in the band had been with him since the early '70s left longtime fans feeling as if a chunk of their past had been suddenly and unceremoniously ripped away.
To his fans, watching from the sidelines and waiting for a new album, each bit of news only added to the anxiety. Would all the turmoil in Springsteenland turn his music upside down? And if so, would it be a change for the better, or for the worse?
As it turns out, the answers are no and neither. For it takes only a few listens to Springsteen's latest albums -- "Human Touch" (Columbia 53000) and "Lucky Town" (Columbia 53001), both of which arrive in record stores Tuesday -- to hear that even with a new family and a fresh set of sidemen, the new See Boss is the same as the old Boss.
It hardly matters which of the two albums you start with, for each is full of familiar touches, from the glockenspiel chiming above the roaring guitars in "Roll of the Dice" (from "Human Touch") to the wheezing harmonica and insistent rhythm guitar churning behind "Local Hero" (from "Lucky Town"). In truth, even the most exotic moments, like Mark Isham's harmon-mute trumpet solo on "With Every Wish" (from "Human Touch"), are so suffused with Springsteenian emotion that nary a note seems out of place.
Even the dual album approach -- despite its obvious debt to Guns N' Roses -- has its precedents. Springsteen's musical range and melodic accessibility on "Human Touch," for instance, seem a throwback to the tuneful diversity of "Born In the U.S.A.," while "Lucky Town," with its dark truths and desperate lives, strikes many of the same chords as "Nebraska."
But don't let those links to the past fool you. Sure, the sound of these albums might make it seem as if Springsteen is fully in touch with his past, but the sense of the songs here suggests that his thinking is strictly present-tense.
That's particularly the case with "Lucky Town," the quieter of the two. True, a lot of that can be traced to the fact that this is the more personal of the two albums, with persistent references to ++ the sort of domesticity Springsteen himself has recently experienced. For instance, the protagonist in "Book of Dreams" is a bridegroom watching in wonder and joy as his wedding unfolds, while "Living Proof" celebrates the hope a new father feels at the birth of a son.
Rather than treat those events strictly as a matter of personal experience, however, Springsteen uses them to ground his songs in the particular, give them the heft and bulk of real life. Perhaps that's why these songs avoid the giddy optimism of his early love songs, where getting the girl and getting away were all that was needed to guarantee romantic bliss.
Real love isn't so simple
Real love isn't quite so simple, of course, and much of the struggle depicted in the songs on "Lucky Town" stems from the singer's realization that there is no "away" to get to -- that the hardest thing about being in love is staying there. This isn't entirely unknown turf for Springsteen, who dealt with similar material in songs like "Brilliant Disguise" (from "Tunnel of Love"). But what sets the best moments on "Lucky Town" apart is that instead of always playing the hero, the singer acknowledges that sometimes he's the one who needs to be saved.
Take "Leap of Faith," a typically triumphant rocker in which the gospel-ized chorus celebrates not the singer's knight-like rescue his lady, but her efforts to convince him that faith and trust are what unlock love's door. Similarly, "If I Should Fall Behind" takes the metaphor of a hand-in-hand walk in which "Each lover's steps fall so differently." As the backing track, with its Spanish guitar and gentle habanera beat, warms behind his voice, Springsteen's protagonist promises that he'll wait for his beloved should she lose her footing, and asks, "If I fall behind/ Wait for me."
Of course, to anyone whose taste in love songs was formed by R&B; or country music, the notion that love is a two-way street hardly seems stop-the-presses news. Only in rock and roll has it been persistently depicted as a one-way ticket to romantic bliss.
Broadening the palette
Perhaps that's why the music on "Lucky Town" seems richer and more genuinely traditional than much of Springsteen's earlier work. It isn't just the way his keening voice recalls the unvarnished anguish of classic folk and country singers; there's a definite broadening of his musical palette here. You can hear it in "The Big Muddy," in which Springsteen uses acoustic slide guitar and a lazily thumping bass line to suggest the alluvial flow of an old river, or in the dense layers of "Souls of the Departed," where he contrasts the stinging electric blues of his backing track against the mournful, Celtic cadences of the vocal.
As deeply resonant as these songs are, though, the mood of "Lucky Town" is dark and downbeat, with most of the songs sounding as if Springsteen is singing with the weight of the world on his shoulders. As such, it's a classic critic's album -- a collection more fun to write about than to listen to.
That's definitely not the case with "Human Touch," for this is where Springsteen taps into the sort of sonic thrills that made "Born in the U.S.A." the blockbuster it was. Indeed, it's easy enough to hear echoes of "Glory Days" in the verse pattern to "Man's Job," one of the new album's most engaging rockers.
Moreover, whereas "Lucky Town" has only a few full-tilt rockers to its credit, "Human Touch" is packed with 'em, from the new wave-ish aggression of "Gloria's Eyes" to the open-throttle roar of "All or Nothing." As such, there's something classically Springsteenian in the vigor of these songs, an enthusiasm that cuts to the heart of what makes rock and roll fun. It isn't as if the songs pander to the listener's presumptions, for the album's most thrilling moments -- like the way Sam Moore's screaming harmonies push Springsteen to new heights in "Roll of the Dice" -- invariably go beyond the expected. Even so, there is a sense of climax to the album, that this in some way culminates the musical refinements that have gone before.
The cost of stylistic gains
If the songs on "Human Touch" consolidate the stylistic gains Springsteen has made in the past, however, they do so at some cost. With a playing time of just under an hour, "Human Touch" is a more generous album than the 40-minute "Lucky Town," but it's also the flabbier offering, padded with material that sounds good but says little. "Real World," for instance, spends four verses and a bridge laboriously explaining that love in the real world isn't always easy -- a lesson that would be completely worthless were it not for Moore's high harmonies and a screaming Springsteen guitar solo. Likewise, "Long Goodbye" offers a lot in the way of exuberance, but ties it to an idea that runs no deeper than the song title.
Admittedly, that sort of complaint is the sort of thing that's only likely to matter to those who do their listening from the lyric sheet. After all, rock and roll really is more about hot guitars and soulful voices than big ideas. And besides, "Human Touch" is blessed with more than its fair share of great writing, from the classic white-soul balladry of "I Wish I Were Blind" to the sly truth beneath the joke in "57 Channels (And Nothin' On)."
For this reviewer, though, the real reason to prefer "Human Touch" over "Lucky Town" has less to do with sound versus ideas than with the charms of three specific songs. One is "Cross My Heart," an astonishing testament to the redeeming power of love that borrows slightly from Sonnyboy Williamson (one line and the title) while couched in a thoroughly Springsteenian fusion of country-style melody and synth-powered groove; another is "With Every Wish," a luscious, dream-like meditation on the perils of getting what you want.
But my favorite of all is "Pony Boy," a slightly revamped traditional tune performed by Springsteen and Scialfa with all the tenderness of new parents singing to their child. It may not wrestle with anyone's reason for being, but it's as genuine and heartfelt as pop music gets.
And really -- isn't that why we listen?