With his two new albums — his first in nearly five years and first as a declared solo artist — Bruce Springsteen completes an emotional triptych begun in 1987 with Tunnel of Love. On that album, "Tougher Than the Rest" articulates the early Springsteen code on love: Commitment is a triumph of the will. You make a vow, you keep it. But at the center of that album stand three songs — "Tunnel of Love," "Two Faces" and "Brilliant Disguise" — that suggest the virtual impossibility of knowing yourself well enough (let alone another person) to make any vow meaningful forever. To enter the tunnel of love is to take a night journey on which the definitions of your identity dissolve and you encounter aspects of yourself that seem profoundly foreign and disturbing. In short, Tunnel of Love is a study of deception — and more chillingly, self-deception — in matters of the heart.
Human Touch (begun in 1989, completed in early 1991) and Lucky Town (recorded in a two-month burst shortly after Human Touch) describe the effort of building a realistic life after the code has been shattered, in Springsteen's case by an affair and a divorce. Intriguing companion pieces, they're Lose Your Illusion I and II.
Beginning with the pulsing title track, which stands among Springsteen's best work, the fourteen songs on Human Touch explore the movement from disenchanted isolation to a willingness to risk love and its attendant traumas again. At first the moves are tentative, motivated more by loneliness — a need for "a little of that human touch" — than by love's golden promise or, even more remote, the prospect of actual lasting happiness with another human being. Also, as the bluesy "Cross My Heart" makes clear, the certainties of the past ("Once you cross your heart/You ain't ever supposed to lie") are starting to be replaced by a more shaded outlook: "Well you may think the world's black and white/And you're dirty or you're clean/You better watch out you don't slip/Through them spaces in between."
Aptly, the introspective, self-questioning mood of Human Touch shifts near its midpoint with "Roll of the Dice," the most generic-sounding Springsteen rocker — glockenspiel and all — on either of these albums. With renewed energy, even optimism, the singer accepts the emotional dangers of love and his own failings ("I'm a thief in the house of love/And I can't be trusted"), stops fretting and determines to get on with living. The superb "Real World" then offers an inspiringly lucid vision of a love that can sidestep fantasy to take a dignified place in "the real world," and the slamming "All or Nothin' at All," graced by a soaring, catchy chorus, insists on commitment rather than flees it.
After that, however, both "Man's Job" and "Real Man" flirt perilously with soft, contemporary clichés about masculinity ("If I can find the guts to give you all my love/Then I'll be feelin' like a real man"). Fortunately, Springsteen stops short of songs about his inner child or flagging self-esteem. The slick, annoyingly seductive keyboard riff of "Real Man" also ventures closer to Phil Collins territory than anything Springsteen has done before. More positively, "Pony Boy," a traditional tune performed acoustically by Springsteen on guitar and harmonica, with his wife, Patti Scialfa, providing harmony, closes Human Touch on a tender, disarming note.
The childlike charm of "Pony Boy" provides an effective, understated transition to Lucky Town, on which Springsteen examines his life as a family man, negotiates a truce with his demons and achieves a hard-won sense of fulfillment. Dedicated to Scialfa and the couple's two children, the album's ten songs paint a convincing — and only rarely cloying — portrait of domestic life and its contents. The rousing opener, "Better Days," ably sets the tone; it's a bracing antinostalgia blast that asserts: "These are better days baby/Better days with a girl like you." The song also takes on with impressive candor the Springsteen myth ("It's a sad funny ending to find yourself pretending/A rich man in a poor man's shirt") and the immeasurable degree of his material comfort ("A life of leisure and a pirate's treasure/Don't make much for tragedy").
With characteristic sure-footedness, however, Springsteen does not permit heartfelt satisfaction to slip into self-satisfaction. If "Leap of Faith," "If I Should Fall Behind," "Living Proof" and "Book of Dreams" all convey a nearly swooning appreciation of the pleasures that a settled home life affords, "The Big Muddy," "Souls of the Departed" and "My Beautiful Reward" intimate that, for Springsteen at least, the attainment of love is inextricable from the fear of its loss. A brooding blues evocatively colored by Springsteen's acoustic slide guitar, "The Big Muddy" takes a knowing look at infidelity, greed and moral compromise, concluding, "There ain't no one leavin' this world buddy/Without their shirttail dirty/Or their hands bloody." The churning, guitar-driven "Souls of the Departed" depicts the singer, one of "the self-made men" in the Hollywood Hills, under siege as violence rages in the Middle East and, closer by, in East Compton. The death of a child in a barrio shooting causes him to wonder, in an aching drawl, "Tonight as I tuck my own son in bed/All I can think of is what if it would've been him instead."
"My Beautiful Reward," an elegant, folkish ballad, ends Lucky Town on an almost surreally unsettled note. The calm, gentle music belies dreamlike imagery of falling, wandering and abandonment. The striking verse that closes the song and the album — "Tonight I can feel the cold wind at my back/I'm flyin' high over gray fields my feathers long and black/Down along the river's silent edge I soar/Searching for my beautiful reward" — harks back to the restlessness at the heart of Human Touch and hints of a darkness on the edge of Lucky Town.
Musically, neither of these two albums represents much of a departure for Springsteen, despite the breakup of the E Street Band. Produced by Springsteen, Jon Landau, Chuck Plotkin and former E Street Band keyboardist Roy Bittan, Human Touch is more richly textured than Lucky Town, which Springsteen recorded in his home studio and pretty much produced himself, with help from the other three men. Along with the impeccable Bittan on keyboards, the studio pros on hand for Human Touch — bassist Randy Jackson and drummer Jeff Porcaro — do fine; Porcaro even manages on occasion to approach the muscle and finesse of the brilliant E Street Band drummer, Max Weinberg. Springsteen handles virtually all instruments except drums (played by Gary Mallabar) on Lucky Town with expressiveness and flair; on both albums his guitar playing is plentiful and gripping, a cry from the soul.
Without question, the aesthetic and thematic aims of Human Touch and Lucky Town would have been better realized by a single, more carefully shaped collection that eliminated their half-dozen or so least essential songs. But taken together, the two albums chart the fascinating progress of one of the most compelling artists of our time, a man who has found what he was looking for and who is searching still.