So Bruce Springsteen met a girl, fell in love, got married and made an album of songs about meeting a girl, falling in love and getting married. And if you think it’s that cut and dried, you don’t know Springsteen. Far from being a series of hymns to cozy domesticity, Tunnel of Love is an unsettled and unsettling collection of hard looks at the perils of commitment. A decade or so ago, Springsteen acquired a reputation for romanticizing his subject matter; on this album he doesn’t even romanticize romance.
Tunnel of Love is precisely the right move for an artist whose enormous success gloriously affirmed the potential of arena rock & roll but exacted a toll on the singer. Born in the U.S.A. sold 12 million copies mostly because it was the best kind of thoughtful, tough, mainstream rock & roll record — but also because it was misinterpreted and oversimplified by listeners looking for slogans rather than ideas. When Springsteen hit the road to support that album, his sound got bigger, his gestures larger, his audience huger. The five-record live set that followed that tour was a suitably oversize way to sum up Bruce Springsteen, the Boss, American Rock Icon.
But where do you go from there? Trying to top Born in the U.S.A. with another collection of rock anthems would have been foolhardy artistically; on the other hand, to react the way Springsteen did after the breakthrough 1980 success of The River — with a homemade record as stark and forbidding as Nebraska — would have turned an inspired gesture into a formula. So Tunnel of Love walks a middle ground. The most intelligently arranged album Springsteen has made, it consists mostly of his own tracks, sparingly overdubbed; he uses the members of the E Street Band when they fit. It’s not, as was rumored, a country album, though Springsteen sings it in the colloquial, folkish voice he used on Nebraska, and it’s not a rock & roll album, though “Spare Parts” and “Brilliant Disguise” come close to the full-bodied E Street Band sound.
Instead, this is a varied, modestly scaled, modern-sounding pop album; it is a less ambitious work than Born in the U.S.A., but its simpler sound is perfectly suited to the more intimate stories Springsteen is telling. Although you could often hear the sweat on his previous records, this LP came surprisingly quickly and feels effortless and elegant rather than belabored. Crucially, it demystifies Springsteen’s often arduous album-making process.
But energy rather than elegance is what sold Born in the U.S.A.; the scaled-down Tunnel of Love is thus a chancier commercial proposition. The songs are the kind that many of the fans at the last tour’s stadium shows talked through. Listeners who turn to Springsteen for outsize gestures and roaring radio rock may well be confused or even irritated by these more somber miniatures and may insist on reading a first-rate song collection as an aberration.
Initially, in fact, Tunnel of Love sounds not only modest but also playful, giddy and lightweight. “Ain’t Got You” is a funny, partially a cappella Bo Diddley-style rocker that jokes about Springsteen’s wealth (“I got a pound of caviar sitting home on ice/I got a fancy foreign car that rides like paradise”) but expresses yearning for the one thing money can’t buy (i.e., “you”). In the next two songs, “Tougher Than the Rest” and “All That Heaven Will Allow,” Springsteen is head over heels in love, convinced that the sun will shine as long as he’s got the right woman by his side. Those three songs are a light, romantic, lovely beginning, and then it all comes crashing down.
Bobby said he’d pull out Bobby stayed in
Janey had a baby it wasn’t any sin
They were set to marry on a summer day
Bobby got scared and he ran away.
The song, “Spare Parts,” is a road-house rocker reminiscent of Dylan’s “Highway 61 Revisited”; the sound is abrasive and harsh; the story is bleak; and the moral is hard: “Spare parts/And broken hearts/Keep the world turnin’ around.”
From that point on, times are tough. In “Cautious Man,” the main character has “love” tattooed on one hand, “fear” on the other (Springsteen’s lift from the film The Night of the Hunter, in which Robert Mitchum played a preacher with “love” and “hate” tattooed on his knuckles). The relationships in “Two Faces,” “Brilliant Disguise” and “One Step Up” (“and two steps back”) are crumbling as trust gives way to betrayal and recrimination: “Another fight and I slam the door on/Another battle in our dirty little war.” In the title song, Springsteen voices a fear that underlies the entire album: “It’s easy for two people to lose each other in/This tunnel of love.”
But these are not “Baby, you done me wrong” songs. They’re not about the outside forces that threaten relationships but about the internal demons that keep people uncertain of love, skeptical that they can ever truly touch another human being. It is an album about loneliness and solitude in the midst of what promised to be bliss. A pivotal moment comes halfway through “Brilliant Disguise,” when the singer stops questioning his lover and turns upon himself: “I wanna know if it’s you I don’t trust/’Cause I damn sure don’t trust myself.” More than any record since his first, it is an album in which you can hear Springsteen’s Catholic upbringing: again and again lovers pray for deliverance, romance is depicted as a manifestation of God’s grace, and love brings with it doubt and guilt.
Of course, the religious images and the frequent references to weddings will tempt those who want to think these songs tell us about Springsteen’s own recent marriage. But to read Tunnel of Love as a report from the marital front is far too facile and ignores the fact that Springsteen was telling similar stories as far back as Darkness on the Edge of Town, in 1978. Since then, he has written about the promises our country makes to its people and the way it reneges on those promises, about the dreams our land inspires and the things that stifle those dreams and about the glory in simply persevering. On Tunnel of Love, Springsteen is writing about the promises people make to each other and the way they renege on those promises, about the romantic dreams we’re brought up with and the internal demons that stifle those dreams. The battleground has moved from the streets to the sheets, but the battle hasn’t changed significantly.
And in “Valentine’s Day,” the last song on the record, Springsteen quietly reaffirms the glory of persevering. In the song, the singer drives a long, lonely highway and thinks about his girl, terrified of losing her and grappling with all the uncertainty that’s surfaced throughout the album. Finally, he shrugs aside the doubts and makes a final plea: “So hold me close honey say you’re forever mine/And tell me you’ll be my lonely valentine.” It’s a partial return to the touching naiveté of the album’s first three songs, but at this point it sounds like deliberate, hard-earned naiveté.
More than any other song, however, it is “Walk Like a Man” — the track that ends side one — that has the feel of outright autobiography. Yet another song about his father — sung from the vantage point of the son’s wedding day — it moves to as lovely an arrangement as Springsteen has ever crafted: a steady drumbeat with distant echoes of “Racing in the Street,” a gentle wash of synthesizer, a lulling melody. Every incident rings true, and every line seems open, genuine and artless (“So much has happened to me/That I don’t understand”). It is perhaps the most compassionate and affecting song Springsteen has written to his father, but at its center is a devastating question that reverberates through the entire album:
I remember ma draggin’ me and my sister up the street to the church
Whenever she heard those wedding bells
Well would they ever look so happy again
The handsome groom and his bride
As they stepped into that long black limousine
For their mystery ride?
There’s the heart of the album: an uncertain journey down a dangerous, dark highway. The album doesn’t make it sound like an easy trip — but then, it’s been a long time since Bruce Springsteen has written about free rides of any sort. One of the wonders of Tunnel of Love is that in the end, he convinces us that the mystery ride just might be worth the toll.