After years of restless searching, Bruce Springsteen has found self- fulfillment, the motif that unifies his eagerly anticipated two new albums, arriving in stores Tuesday (3/31). And after nearly five years of impatient speculation, fans too will find rewards in these satisfying collections. The radio-friendly, 14-song Human Touch (***) is polished, guitar-propelled, feel-good rock. It's likelier to dominate commercially, but it's also scattered and less inspiring than the pensive, emotionally absorbing Lucy Town (****).
Neither marks a radical departure from past albums, and neither equals 1987's powerfully dark and edgy Tunnel of Love, still his finest, most cohesive work. Yet his 10th and 11th albums both brim with warm, heartfelt and intelligent music that bolsters Springsteen's reputation as one of rock's most consistently interesting songwriters.
Musically, Human Touch revisits very familiar Springsteen terrain: conservative rootsy rock with stinging guitars and bellowing vocals. No longer the Jersey shore's beautiful loser on a motorbike, Springsteen, 42, still rocks out, but with less urgency and abandon. Lucky Town recalls his mellower forays and penchant for country/folk traditions.
Thematically, both albums are adult-oriented, with an occasional throwback to teen hormones. He's optimistic, less plagued by dread and more comfortable in his own skin. Formerly concerned with obstacles in the outside world, Springsteen is now surveying the sometimes equally perilous internal barriers to happiness: self-doubt, fear of commitment, bottled rage and gnawing memories of pain and failure. Now he's overcoming Tunnel's consuming threats.
Distinguishing between true confessions and concocted fables is tricky, but given the autobiographical nature of earlier releases, it's safe to conclude that the two dozen songs at least flirt with the actual facts of this notoriously private celebrity's life. He sets up Touch's wry 57 Channels (And Nothin'On) with a frank admission:
I bought a bourgeois house in the Hollywood hills
In Book of Dreams, one of several gorgeous ballads on Lucky Town, he remembers intertwined feelings of wonder and apprehension on the day he wed Patti Scialfa:
Now the ritual begins
And in Living Proof, he reflects on son Evan's birth:
Well now on a summer night in a dusky room
Much has happened since Springsteen last dominated pop. He divorced actress Julianne Phillips and courted E Street singer Scialfa, events the press scrutinized during his huge U.S. tour and global Amnesty International outing. He discarded the E Street Band, fled New Jersey for Beverly Hills, married Scialfa and had two children.
Such tumultuous changes, coupled with an extended absence and an altered pop market, intensified curiosity about Springsteen's musical course. Some will be disappointed that the lyrics aren't more incisive or that the tunes lack anthemic grandeur or experimental daring. And many will wonder why Springsteen abandoned the E Street Band only to settle for an unextraordinary facsimile with less fiery chemistry. Valid gripes to be sure. But had the albums been released two years ago, expectations might not be so stratospheric. And had Springsteen aimed to please every faction, he would have released Born In The Tunnel of Darkness at the Edge of the River in Nebraska.
Instead, we find Springsteen happily revelling in the "better days" of the present. On Human Touch, which he began recording in late 1989, he's struggling to shed phony skins and muster courage to take a chance on love (hence a profusion of gambling metaphors, most notably in the rollicking, piano-pumped Roll of the Dice). On Soul Driver, Springsteen succumbs to the lure of love's promise despite the uncertainty of whether "we hit it rich or crash and burn."
Though straining under pedestrian arrangements and a studio gloss, the album manages a soul- injected vital rock bite, due largely to Springsteen's vocals and guitar rather than the tethered contributions of E Street holdover Roy Bittan on keyboards and session players Randy Jackson on bass and Jeff Porcaro on drums. With a pealing guitar solo to hike the emotional wallop, I Wish I Were Blind dwells on the lingering hurt of lost love. It's HT's best track. Other highlights include a chugging country blues, Cross My Heart; Gloria's Eyes, a potential chart-scaler; the evocative ballad With Every Wish, graced by Mark Isham's subdued trumpet; and All or Nothin' at All, driven by a thumping bass and manic guitar. The album closes with the sweet acoustic Pony Boy, which Springsteen and Scialfa fashion into a country-folk nursery rhyme. The missteps are macho novelties Real Man and Man's Job.
Lucky Town's 10 songs, recorded at his home studio over two months in '91, are more introspective and lean, with Springsteen on most instruments. The mood is upbeat as the singer concentrates on the rewards of a hard-won happy family life. And he worries about how to sustain it. The anguished Souls of the Departed laments the deaths of a gulf war soldier and 7-year-old victim of gang warfare, then zeroes in on parental paranoia:
Tonight as I tuck my own son in bed
Elsewhere, Springsteen is finding his way out of an identity triangle: who he is, what he once pretended to be and his towering myth. "It's a sad funny ending to find yourself pretending, a rich man in a poor man's shirt," he sings on Better Days. And in Local Hero, he examines fame's seduction and the public's need to create and destroy idols:
There's beautiful women, night of low livin'
Though still rock's foremost working-class hereo, the Boss is facing commercial challenges. His fan base has eroded since 1984's breakthrough Born in the USA, and the volatile pop market currently champions teen-oriented rock and rap. But Springsteen is more concerned with reaching his potential as an artist and family man. On these albums, he's clearly favoring a human touch over the Midas touch