The long wait is over. Bruce Springsteen is back, and he hasn't forgotten how to rock.
That message came through loud and clear on March 4th, when two new Springsteen songs, "Human Touch" and "Better Days," began dominating radio. By the end of that week, "Human Touch" was the most-added song on Top Forty, album-rock and adult-contemporary stations.
According to Radio and Records, ninety-one percent of all album-rock stations that report to the magazine were programming "Human Touch," making it the Number One song on that format. ("Better Days" entered R&R's album-rock chart at Number Five.) At Top Forty, or CHR, radio, 177 of 230 reporting stations added "Human Touch" its first week out "It's a hell of an accomplishment," said Joel Denver, Radio and Records' CHR editor, "particularly at a time when it's not hip to be rocking out on CHR."
In fact, radio's response to the single seemed to dispel some music-industry doubts about how well Springsteen would fare this time out, given that it's been nearly five years since he released his last studio album, Tunnel of Love, and that many of his songs are now tackling more obviously adult themes. The week before the double-A-sided single was released, Billboard magazine had reported that pop radio was "concerned about overexposure of past Springsteen hits and his current relevance to its audience." Billboard also reported that Sony Music, Springsteen's label, had decided to play it safe, limiting initial shipments of the two albums to 1.5 million each (Tunnel of Love sold about 3 million copies).
"They [Sony] don't want too many albums in the field," said Russ Solomon, owner of the Tower Records chain. "With Michael Jackson, they shipped 4 million, and they haven't sold them off yet. If an album is sitting around in large quantities in a record store, it looks stale."
Solomon added that Springsteen's long layoff was cause for some concern: "Whether the fans who are now five years older care that much, I don't know." But Solomon and other retailers were still optimistic that Springsteen's new albums, Human Touch and Lucky Town, would do very well when they reach the stores on March 31st. "Great artists have tremendous followings," Solomon said, "and Springsteen certainly is a great artist. These records could take off like nobody's business."
"We think they're going to be monstrous," said Lew Garrett, vice-president of purchasing for the Camelot chain. "Springsteen appeals to a demographic that has money in their pockets and isn't afraid to spend it."
Though early reports had indicated that Human Touch and Lucky Town – Springsteen's tenth and eleventh albums – were vastly different in style, both are essentially straight-ahead, guitar-driven rock LPs, and there are no dramatic departures from his previous work. But the breakup of the E Street Band following the Human Rights Now! Tour in 1988 gave Springsteen the freedom to record with different musicians for virtually the first time in his career, and there are a few songs on the two albums that probably would not have surfaced on an E Street album.
Springsteen, who's now forty-two, began making Human Touch in late 1989, using a core group that included former E Street Band member Roy Bittan on keyboards and sessionmen Jeff Porcaro (of Toto fame) on drums and Randy Jackson (who's worked with Journey, among others) on bass. The first song they recorded was "Roll of the Dice," a rousing rocker written by Springsteen and Bittan that would not have sounded out of place on an E Street Band album.
The LP includes several other uptempo tracks: "Soul Driver," which features Sam Moore, formerly of Sam and Dave, on vocals and David Sancious, an early E Street Band member, on Hammond organ; "Gloria's Eyes," one of several tracks on which Springsteen serves up some stinging guitar; "The Long Goodbye," another guitar-heavy rocker; the more soulful "Real World"; and "All or Nothin' at All," a two-chord scorcher.
The album's funniest track is "57 Channels," which opens with Bob Glaub's thumping bass line and tells the story of a man who "bought a bourgeois house in the Hollywood Hills," installed cable TV and then a satellite dish ("home entertainment was my baby's wish"), only to find that "there was 57 channels and nothin' on." He finally buys a .44 Magnum, "and in the blessed name of Elvis, well, I let it blast."
In a more serious vein is "With Every Wish," a spare, haunting ballad that features Springsteen on acoustic guitar, Mark Isham on trumpet, Kurt Wortman on drums and Doug Lunn on bass. Musically, it recalls Born to Run's "Meeting Across the River." The lyrics deal with wishes that come true: "Before you choose your wish, son/You better think first/With every wish there comes a curse."
Springsteen finished Human Touch – which includes fourteen songs and contains nearly an hour of music – in early 1991. But almost immediately he had an unexpected burst of creativity and began writing again. One of the first songs he came up with was "Living Proof." For a while, he considered adding it to Human Touch, but the song – obviously inspired by his young son, Evan James – didn't seem to fit. "There was a different voice there," said a source familiar with the project. "It became apparent that something had happened, that he was in a different mode."
Springsteen went on to record the ten songs on Lucky Town, including "Better Days," in about eight weeks, working at his home in Los Angeles. Bittan and Jackson rejoined him, but Porcaro was unavailable, so drummer Gary Mallaber, whose résumé includes stints with Van Morrison and the Steve Miller Band, was recruited.
The album has a loose, stripped-down sound, especially compared to the more polished Human Touch. It includes two beautiful ballads: the love song "If I Should Fall Behind," with Springsteen on bass and acoustic guitar, and "Book of Dreams," a touching wedding-day portrait. There are other overt allusions to Springsteen's family life: In "Souls of the Departed," a rocker, he sings about a seven-year-old boy who was murdered in a Compton, California, schoolyard, then adds: "As I tuck my own son in bed/All I can think is what if it'd been him instead."
One source summed up the difference between the albums by saying that on Human Touch, Springsteen is "struggling for the meaning of happiness: What does it mean to be a man?" On the second album, "he's realized he's happy, and he's trying to find out what that means."
Springsteen is expected to be on the road by the summer, but at press time tour plans were still being worked out.
This story is from the April 16, 1992 issue of Rolling Stone.