Should Springsteen Be Forgiven?

Arguments for reconsidering the missteps on the Boss’ otherwise impeccable track record.

Tunnel of Love(Columbia, 1987)The gelled hair, black suit, and bolo tie on the album cover, flanked by a hot white coupe on a sunny beach that bears no resemblance to the grim Jersey shore. The mega-success of Born in the U.S.A. and its unintended association with Ronald Reagan. The tabloid marriage to statuesque Hollywood blonde Julianne Phillips. The slick, synth-heavy production that relegated the E Street Band to cameo status. It was all so big-buck schmuck, so un-Boss—it was the album Tunnel of Love, which sent Springsteen loyalists into a decade-long tailspin of bitterness concerning their erstwhile working-class hero.Stripped of this context, however, Tunnel of Love is actually an exceptional collection of songs, an often dark, dynamic emotional roller coaster to fit right alongside the amusement park allusion in the title. Simply put, the album is a referendum on the Boss' short-lived marriage to Phillips. Its first track, "Ain't Got You," is a folky, harmonica-only cock tease in which Springsteen boasts that he's got all the riches in the world, save for the ultimate prize: a lifelong love. Next, the similarly cocky yet subtly tender "Tougher Than the Rest" sees Springsteen wooing his bride-to-be, a courtship that proves successful in the sweet, snappy "All That Heaven Will Allow."Following this appetizing opening salvo is a trio of songs that constitute the album's weakest quarter and have little if anything to do with its amorous theme. But then, with the tongue-in-cheek title track, the Boss gets back to his relationship with Phillips and the troubles therein. "It ought to be easy, ought to be simple enough," sings Springsteen. "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.""Two Faces" and "Brilliant Disguise" continue in this vein, with Springsteen growing ever more angry with the state of his union. This is a great pair of songs, but they pale in comparison to the album's heart-wrenching, snail-paced final quarter, which sees Springsteen throwing in the towel on his marriage. "One Step Up," "When You're Alone," and "Valentine's Day" are haunting, gorgeous ballads that are apt to drive a broken man to tears, as personal and vulnerable a trio of tracks as the Boss has ever recorded. If they can't redeem this period of Springsteen's career in the eyes of diehards, then nothing can.Mike Seely

Born in the U.S.A.(Columbia, 1984)Given that Born in the U.S.A. was a mammoth commercial success on par with Thriller or Nevermind, it sounds rather ridiculous to call it underrated. Seven top-10 singles and 15 million copies sold is far from a flop. However, when you view the Springsteen catalog through the average hipster prism, it most certainly is undervalued. It really just isn't very cool to admit you love the record with his ass on the cover.Nebraska, Born to Run, The River, and Darkness on the Edge of Town are frequently cited as influential records by the growing legion of contemporary indie acts who revere the Boss (the Hold Steady, Arcade Fire, and Eric Bachman, to name just a few), but 1984's Born in the U.S.A. remains tainted by its association with the golden age of MTV, questionable album artwork, and the evergreen misinterpretations of the title track as some sort of chest-thumping conservative anthem (and of course, just like Van Halen that same year, Springsteen committed a cardinal sin by pulling synthesizers into the mix).But once you cleanse your palate of all that Reagan-era bitterness, it's quite easy to see why the record connected with such a broad audience, and almost more significantly, how it's actually a pretty subversive, innovative effort. The title track—an anguished tirade about the hollowness of the American dream and the ugly realities of the Vietnam War—is an obvious anchor, and "Dancing in the Dark," with its Brian De Palma–directed video, crystalline sax solo, and restless, everyman energy, is foolproof pop gold, but it's actually the quietly smoldering centerpiece that really makes the record a creative step forward for New Jersey's chosen son.Clocking in at just over two-and-a-half minutes long, "I'm on Fire" is the album's shortest song, and it represents the debut of an entirely new topic for Springsteen: the frank and graphic discussion of sex. "Making love in the dirt with crazy Janey" (from Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J.'s "Spirit in the Night") and his countless ruminations about girls named Mary were romantic snapshots, not outright lascivious observations. The core of what makes Springsteen an iconic, enduring songwriter is his unflinching honesty about human foibles, and spelling out clearly what it feels like to be entirely driven by lust is a critical component of telling those truths.Hannah Levin

Human Touch(Columbia, 1992)Who in the hell would stand up to defend Human Touch? Tunnel of Love, Born in the U.S.A., sure. But Human Touch? Arguably the flattest and most lifeless of his albums?Human Touch was released simultaneously with Lucky Town, the latter inarguably the superior. Of all the songs Springsteen wrote at this time, he put the best ones on Lucky Town, leaving Human Touch to resemble a chubbier, lazier little brother. It is the Billy Carter of the two, and much like ol' Billy done to elder brother Jimmy, forced Lucky Town to bear the brunt of bad press.Legend has it that the songs on Human Touch were Springsteen's attempts at rescuing himself from writer's block. At this point in his career, I've always surmised, what the hell did he have to write about? He was fucking rich, married with kids, had absolutely everything he needed and then some. But he couldn't really write about that, now, could he? If posing Miami Vice–style on the cover of Tunnel of Love pissed off his blue-collar followers, he wouldn't dare turn around and sing to them about how hard it is to be a millionaire, would he? But Human Touch's crisp production aptly reflects Springsteen's healthy financial state. It's mighty slick, full of cheesy synthesizers, bulbous bass, and razor-sharp snare drum snaps. This is, without a doubt, the album's biggest turnoff. Much of it sounds like generic rock for middle-aged men in Izods driving Mazda convertibles around Bellevue.However, I predict Human Touch will be better appreciated with hindsight. Springsteen, like Dylan, always has a certain magic, even at his worst. Sure, Human Touch contains lyrics like "Baby let me be your soul driver" (???), but it also includes "Real World," a fantastic song about lovers losing their luck, and "57 Channels (And Nothin' On)," one of my personal favorites. On the latter, the Boss evokes a humid, brooding mood similar to the one he used in "State Trooper" from Nebraska. But "57 Channels" is like "State Trooper"'s flip side; we go from a man who has nothing watching a cop tail him in the rearview mirror to a man who has too much and is still discontent. This is, to me, real proof of Springsteen's greatness. When he was broke and struggling, he was the working-man's poet. And when he got wealthy, he was still capable of pulling chilling lyrics from the depths of his financially secure soul.Brian J. Barr

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