Remembering a time when Springsteen wasn’t hip is like imagining a time when it was illegal to serve alcohol. The period from 1992 to the release of the ’95 greatest hits compilation found The Boss experimenting with The Earring, The Goatee, and The Flowered Shirts and, depressingly, The Untucked Dress Shirt. To buy Tunnel of Love meant still believing in the boomer conception of Springsteen: the artist whom the Anthony DeCurtises of rockcrit thought offered insights into love; it meant believing in this conception while being twenty-one in 1995. It remains my pick for his best album, and, yeah, it was the first Springsteen album I bought — what about it?
The review below, rescued from the dying Stylus archives, is still one of the best pieces I wrote for them, rhetorical excesses aside.
Tunnel of Love
As a college freshman, I sometimes wanted a relationship so that I could endure a devastating breakup. My rituals of romance were crafted by Roxy Music’s Avalon and Al Green’s Livin’ for You (fortunately, my insufferability made practicing these rituals difficult, and these were the wrong models for my kind of lovin’ anyway, as I would learn a few years later). Hearing “Brilliant Disguise” on Bruce Springsteen’s 1995 Greatest Hits was epochal: this was the model for a sad adult love song. On an album whose defiantly generic title, indifferent sequencing, and chirpy liner notes by the artist himself signaled an intention to sully his much-vaunted integrity on so mercenary a product, “Brilliant Disguise” seared. I liked how the chugging rhythm imposed restraint on Springsteen’s vocal excesses, and admired the almost self-congratulatory manner in which the chorus reverses itself on its final turn around the bend—a neat Brill Building touch.
Maybe the millions of fans wooed by 1984’s Born in the U.S.A. reacted similarly: “Brilliant Disguise” was a Top Five hit in the fall of 1987; Tunnel of Love hit Number One; went triple platinum. Other musicians noticed: Everything But the Girl covered “Tougher Than the Rest,” the Mavericks did “All That Heaven Will Allow,” and Elvis Costello performed a scorched-earth version of “Brilliant Disguise” itself. And then? Springsteen spent what remained of the Reagan administration and most of George H.W. Bush’s in househusband bliss, sharing a home with backup singer Patti Scialfa, the woman who inspired the erections, illicit dancing, tortured second thoughts, and hypocrisy which scar the songs on the album’s second side like cold sores. Of all Springsteen’s records, Tunnel of Love is the one least tainted by expectations. Everyone says a kind word about it. A sizable claque argues that it’s a better record than its predecessor, certainly better than what succeeded it. Still, why doesn’t Tunnel of Love inspire the reverence its unassuming cousin Nebraska receives? Perhaps two sets of values canceled each other out: literary (prole narratives sung “in character”) versus “personal” (love as subject).
The reality proved too complicated for even Springsteen to handle. Tunnel of Love wasn’t so much his Double Fantasy as it was Plastic Ono Band written and recorded as if it was Double Fantasy. This is strong stuff. We hear a middle-class blowhard of moderate intelligence realizing that his capacity for accepting commitment shibboleths almost matches the limits of his sexual tolerance. In finding the ideal medium for the rote resignation that infected even the smartest tunes on The River or Nebraska—a resignation that was Springsteen’s idea of depth and maturity—he inches closest to the working-class archetype of Jon Landau’s dreams. The clumsiness of some of his lyrics here makes me wonder whether this was intended; did he want to think and write like an average guy?
Luckily the music compensates. A Nils Lofgren here or Roy Bittan there excepted, Springsteen handles all instruments. Thanks to his co-producers, Tunnel of Love sounds simultaneously electronic and acoustic: 1987 as 1977, arena bombast as bedsit intimacy; it’s obvious that years of playing in stadiums showed Springsteen how to make big gestures count as small ones. There’s no other album of its time like it. Tunnel of Love‘s synthesis reminds me a little of Bowie’s funk-as-electronic-metronomy achievement on Station to Station. Take “Two Faces,” essentially a demo, but elongated—deepened—by two solos: a guitar filtered through keyboards like Eno was ghosting; and a Farfisa, played I assume by Springsteen himself, answering the singer’s own challenge, “Well, go ahead and let him try.” On an album which questions whether a romantic union can prosper when both partners have wandering eyes, Tunnel of Love’s musical sophistication shows that Springsteen learned plenty from the E Street Band, the longest-lasting relationship of his life.
The oddest thing about the album is a sequencing that’s syncretic rather than conceptual. Third-person narratives, composed and sung with Springsteen’s usual arduous sincerity, comprise its least impressive songs. The Bo Diddley-esque opener “Ain’t Got You” is cute, and we get the point—love is always cute at the beginning, until, as the other tracks make clear, the business of living starts to wear you down—but the real start is the title track itself, whose metaphor is fleshed out by a four-note synth hook we’ll hear again on “Brilliant Disguise,” a Lofgren solo that’s Robert Quine-worthy in its ugliness, and Scialfa’s celebratory background whoops that make us wonder what Broose was doing to her in that there tunnel. While it’s easy, as Springsteen remarks, for two people to lose each other in the tunnel of love, it’s okay—they have to “learn to live with what you just can’t rise above,” which is the kind of bullshit couples confuse with wisdom (it’s inconceivable to imagine Springsteen putting these words in the mouth of his anti-hero in “The River”). Then “Two Faces,” quiet, surly almost, is a tonic; it’s Smokey Robinson wiping the Pagliacci makeup off to reveal Glenn Frey beneath. The rest is thoughtful filler. “Spare Parts” is what it is: musical and lyrical spare parts, burnished by the E Street Band, delighted to be voyeurs. I love the swagger and menacing minor chord keyboard swells with which “Tougher Than The Rest of Us” opens (another great mechanized guitar solo too), but I can smell Like A Rock-era Bob Seger’s body odor.
It’s tempting to argue that confusion is one of Tunnel of Love’s strengths; but Springsteen’s creative confusion and the doubts of his characters brings us dangerously close to the affective fallacy. We expect Springsteen to shrug—he’s always striven to make explicit the emotional parallels between him and his songs when the autobiographical ones falter—but when assessing the album’s impact the consequences are dizzying. Clearly his enthusiasm lies on the second half: the sequence from “Two Faces” to “When You’re Alone” is the bleakest ever to sit on a triple platinum Number One album (it’s shocking that “One Step Up” climbed as high as #13). Scialfa’s harmonies and the adorable twinkle in Springsteen’s voice purify the superstar bathos of “When You’re Alone,” preparing us for the next song, a master stroke that returns to “Ain’t Got You,” without the bromides. As a piece of music, “Valentine’s Day” is just gorgeous: strolling bass hook, synth chimes right out of Kraftwerk’s “Neon Lights” signifying the bliss Springsteen found in Scialfa. For counterpoint he sings grownup lyrics about commitment, fatherhood, and the kind of dreams that scare middle-class superstars.
If anyone wonders why Springsteen never created another Tunnel of Love, re-listen to “Valentine’s Day”—he didn’t need to. For all the well-observed hurt on display here, Springsteen, in life and art, found a happy ending. The sureness with which “Valentine’s Day” ends this album transformed most of Springsteen’s post-1987 work into John Mellencamp records. Some of them are even bleaker than Nebraska, but Springsteen has always confused parched with bleak. Lots of fans think he came out of that tunnel of love, but really, he’s still in there, and he ain’t in no hurry. The rest of us understand how Paul, George, and Ringo felt about having Yoko in the recording studio all the time.