I really like the man and quite a lot of his music but I only own two Springsteen LPs. When I was growing up his music was just everywhere after Born In The USA, so much so that I never felt I needed to actually buy any and that’s near enough where I still am today, able to sing along word-perfect to all manner of tracks I don’t own on plastic.
Did I say I own two Bruce LPs? well that’s a technical untruth because Tunnel of Love doesn’t belong to me, it belongs to Mrs 1537. Now despite being married for 20 years and producing two children I still don’t feel we have quite reached the level of intimacy and trust necessary to merge our records together and so her LPs huddle together in a far off corner of the room in their own vinyl gulag, desperately hoping to one day be granted full citizenship of the shelves. Tunnel of Love got to jump the queue a bit*, mostly because I think Bruce looks awesomely cool on the cover and also because I have been totally in love with one track since the day I first heard it.
Coming off the monster success of Born In The USA, everyone expected a bit more of the same from Mr Springsteen, more bright colours and anthems**. What he served up on Tunnel of Love was a lot more interesting, ditching the E-Street Band, we got a series of pared down meditations and tales about love, honour, marital trust and heartache, set against his disintegrating marriage to Julianne Phillips. The couple filed for divorce just 10 months after the LP was released and you can read the dedication ‘Thanks Juli’, in a few different ways.
It all kicks off with the excellent ‘Ain’t Got You’, which is a wonderful stripped back solo busk by Bruce, where he gets to holler and whoop his way through a successful man’s lament – hey, he’s got it all … almost. It certainly puts the ‘fun’ in ‘an album fundamentally about dealing with doubts and relationship disintegration’.
A rare, almost lone scrap of semi-optimism on one of the most truly melancholy blockbuster mainstream LPs I’ve ever heard ‘Tougher Than the Rest’ just nails it for me every single time. In fact it comes damn close to making me shed sweet raw jagged man tears every time I hear it. I’m just a total sucker for his sincerity, it puts all my usual distancing strategies of irony and humour to flight and just cuts through to my soft mushy man centre.
Some girls they want a handsome Dan
Or some good-lookin’ Joe, on their arm
Some girls like a sweet-talkin’ Romeo
Well ’round here baby
I learned you get what you can get
So if you’re rough enough for love
Honey I’m tougher than the rest
Now, speaking as a particularly ‘good-lookin’ Joe’ I take no offence, although I would point out that Dan ain’t really all that when you see him up close. I’d love to be the sort of guy who could sing this sort of thing authentically in a gravelly Phillip Marlowe world-weary manner, cynical-yet-romantic and battle-hardened; sadly I fear I’d only make it sound flippant and a bit camp. Damn.
I also have a real thing for the title track, which Roy Bittan narrowly avoids spoiling with his synths. The opening image of, ‘Fat man sitting on a little stool / Takes the money from my hand while his eyes take a walk all over you’ is just perfect, as is the great Nils Logfren guitar solo and the hard-won, if pessimistic, wisdom reached by the end of the song:
It ought to be easy ought to be simple enough
Man meets woman and they fall in love
But the house is haunted and the ride gets rough
And you’ve got to learn to live with what you can’t rise above, if you want to ride on down in through this tunnel of love.
The dark country rocker ‘Spare Parts’ is another high water mark, a tale of responsibility, betrayal and self-preservation; love triumphs, but an engagement ring and wedding dress are far better off pawned for ‘good cold cash’. It takes us to the edge though before it lets us off, just imagine Hollis Brown cracking his shotgun, taking out the shells and hanging it back up on his wall. Ditto ‘Cautious Man’, which details the uneasy triumph of love and duty over restlessness.
I really like the way Springsteen, even in his character songs, meets it all head on in Tunnel of Love, no disguising his feelings in oblique poetry and sidelong references here – you want a song about the nagging doubts of how we present ourselves to each other in relationships? try ‘Brilliant Disguise’. Worries about depression and our impact on others? cue up ‘Two faces’. You could peel off lyric after lyric here (random sample: ‘nobody knows honey where love goes/but when it goes it’s gone gone’) to back it all up. There’s a straight-up emotional honesty here that you rarely get in such excoriating detail from a songwriter; no barriers, just bravery.
Tunnel of Love is a flawed album for me though. I tend to crave a change of pace, or maybe a change of mood, by the time I get halfway through the second side. This isn’t helped by some real 80’s production here and there, some synths pitched at just that 1987 tone and some horrid sounding drums in one or two places, it makes me pine for a full E Street Band version of the LP. Mind you that Patti Scialfa lady seems to have made a few appearances on this record … just saying.
Now I’ve stocked up on fluids again and wrung out the front of my T-shirt this good-lookin’ Joe will give ‘Tougher Than the Rest’ another spin, possibly leaning moodily on my car, although given I’m wearing pyjama shorts with reindeers on them and my best ‘lovelorn and smouldering’ look tends to err on the side of ‘chronically constipated’, it may not quite have the same effect. Good job I’m tougher than the rest.
*along with her Dan Reed Network albums, for old time’s sake.
**Trojan-horsing some seriously downbeat lyrics.