Wednesday, July 22, 2015

CD Odyssey Disc 761: Bruce Springsteen

I’m on the early shift at work and I’ve just risen from a satisfying nap (even more satisfying after I kicked my begging cat out of the bedroom).

Disc 761 is….Tunnel of Love
Artist: Bruce Springsteen

Year of Release: 1987

What’s up with the Cover? Lest you think that only production values sucked in 1987, here’s a cover to remind you that fashion, haircuts and – yes – even fonts were all total crap as well.

How I Came To Know It: When I met Sheila she was raving about how great this album was. She was right.

How It Stacks Up: We have 10 Springsteen albums and would rank “Tunnel of Love” 3rd on that list although in many ways it is in a three-way tie for second with two other albums. Since I’ve reviewed neither of the other ones, I’ll let their names remain a mystery.

Ratings: 4 stars

“Tunnel of Love” is one of very few albums so good that not even 1987 production values could wreck it.

It isn’t from lack of trying, though. The drums on “Tougher than the Rest” are electronic and dull and the most touching moment on “Walk Like a Man” is inexplicably punctuated with schmaltzy organ solos. The only song that escapes the sabotage unscathed is the title track, and that’s because the carnival feel of the song is well-suited to the empty majesty of a theme park ride. Wait…on a closer listen even “Tunnel of Love” has a weird eighties dance intro that sounds like in a Debbie Gibson song from the same year. Fortunately it only lasts twenty seconds and then Bruce gets down to business.

And that last paragraph is the only bad thing I have to say about this album. The songwriting on this record is as solid as anything Springsteen has recorded, he sings with conviction and power and thematically the album holds together in all its tragic and romantic glory. These songs are too good to fail.

I don’t usually get into behind-the-scenes bumpf when reviewing an album, but it is worth noting that Springsteen recorded “Tunnel of Love” while going through a divorce from his first wife and falling in love with his back-up singer Patti Scialfa. However personally difficult the transition must have been, it gives the whole album an added emotional punch. We listeners can be thankful Bruce had all that pain and conflict to share with us. Don’t feel too bad, either; he and Scialfa are still together 25 years later, so it all worked out for him too.

Back to the album, which has all number of classics my favourite of which is “Tougher than the Rest” – a song I continue to try and fail to play competently on the guitar. In the process of learning it though, I’ve realized a whole new level of how great it is. How, Springsteen drops ominously down to E minor when he sings about how the road is dark, or holds to the home chord of G an extra measure when he tells his girl he’s tougher than the rest. At every step the music and lyrics are in perfect synch as they draw your soul down the long and twisting road of love’s trials.

Spare Parts” is a boisterous song about a woman learning to survive after being abandoned by her man. At one point she contemplates drowning her love child. Instead, she snaps out of it, goes home and sells the bastard father’s engagement ring and the wedding dress she never wore. It was a relief to hear a song like this not end in someone drowning in a river – folk music is rarely so kind to the lovelorn.

Cautious Man” is a subdued song about the man facing his own crisis of faith – getting up in the middle of the night and seriously considering driving away from his marriage and never coming back. Instead, he returns to the house and lets love conquer fear. Earlier we learn that he’s tattooed “love” and “fear” on his knuckles, which flies in the face of his characterization as a cautious man. I guess that’s the point.

Both these songs manage to escape the 1987 production values for the most part, with “Spare Parts” rockabilly style feeling like it belongs on “The River” and “Cautious Man’s” quiet acoustic guitar sounding like something off of “Nebraska.”

Brilliant Disguise” is one of the great break up songs, and “When You’re Alone” captures that desolate space and how the death of love is a one way journey. As Johnny tells his girl when she tries to retrace her steps to his door:

“I knew some day your runnin’ wild would be through
And you’d think back on me and you
And your love would be strong
You’d forget all about the bad and think only of
All the love that we had
And you’d wanna come home
Now it ain’t hard feelings or nothin’ sugar
That ain’t what’s got me singing this song
It’s just nobody knows honey where love goes
But when it goes it’s gone gone.”

Ever tell someone you’ll always be there for them if they want to come back to you? I have. That verse is exactly how it feels when you wake up one day and know it’s not true anymore.

With all this heart-wrenching exploration of love and honour Bruce finally lets us off the hook with the final song on the album, “Valentine’s Day.” This is a sweet and thoughtful love song with nothing more terrible in it than a bad dream, and nothing more complicated than a desire to see your girl. After pulling us through the wringer he ends the record with a reminder that sometimes it all works out, and all those dark roads thrumming ominously to the tune of E minor just make it that much sweeter when it does.

Best tracks: Tougher than the Rest, Spare Parts, Cautious Man, Walk Like a Man, Brilliant Disguise, When You’re Alone

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