Welcome to #ThrowbackThursday, a weekly column where I take a close look at a classic album. Maybe it's an album you haven't heard of, maybe it's an album you're aware of but haven't ever bothered giving a proper spin, maybe it's an album you love and wouldn't mind being reminded of. Regardless, the goal is to spark conversation about the albums that made today's music what it is.
Today's special #ThrowbackThursday pre-holiday pick is a little different than most: I usually like to focus heavily on the sonic characteristics of an album, but for this week's pick, Bruce Springsteen's Tunnel of Love I'll be focusing mostly on the lyrics.
The reasons for this are twofold: A, this record is definitely some of the most restrained music ever credited to the E Street Band: I could start an entire new blog called Brucehole.co about how great Clarence Clemons is or how Max Weinberg's drums on "Rosalita" are GOAT status, but for the most part the band doesn't even play on the record.
B, the album is lyrically intense. This is one of the most introspective records Bruce (or anyone in the pantheon of recorded music) ever released. The album--recorded in the midst of Bruce' estrangement from his wife--is full of reflections on the darker side of romance, which is perfect for Valetine's Day, right?
As a sidenote, this was the first vinyl record I ever bought. I was going through a shitty breakup and I needed the kind of therapy only The Boss can provide. Sue me.
As a second sidenote, if you're alone and bored on Valentine's Day, turn this article into a drinking game! One sip every time I use the word "love," two sips for "uncertainty." You'll still be alone and bored, but you'll also be shithammered.
"Ain't Got You," the album's opening track, is an upbeat, quasi-gospel number. Over finger snaps, an acoustic guitar playing a Bo Diddly rhythm, and a harmonica, The Boss lays out a list of his material possessions (Rembrandts, a pound of caviar, foreign cars, etc) but laments that he still ain't got the titular you. It's a simple, but timeless trope: a guy lamenting about loneliness while still making careful note to humblebrag. I guess what I'm trying to say is this is the closest Springsteen ever came to being Drake. (Noteworthy is that Bruce makes note that his car is foreign. That must have hurt for him to admit.)
"Tougher Than The Rest," by comparison, is a more ornate composition. Over layers of synth pads and a drum machine contributing the most 80s sounding snare drum I've ever heard--hell, even the country-influenced guitar licks on this track are flanger-laden enough to sound 80s as hell--Bruce lays down some science: "And all your other boyfriends/ They couldn't pass the test/ So if you're looking for love/ Honey I'm tougher than the rest." At first glance, it's a message of strength and resolve that Bruce is going to one day win the heart of his love interest. But with the way the he dwells on the same love interest's other romances makes it clear: he's not singing to her but rather to himself, trying to conjure up fortitude and remind himself why he's putting himself through all this rejection.
"All That Heaven Will Allow" is another upbeat track with a truly beautiful hook: ladies (or dudes), if someone ever makes the point that you are literally the greatest thing that divine forces would ever be willing to put on earth, you probably owe him or her a date. I might be reading too much into this, but I think this song has a more complex undertone: at no point in the song is Bruce's significant other actually there with him--she might be walking up, or she might be in a bar Bruce is having a time getting inside, but she's never present. You can write off the entire song as wishful daydreaming, and I think it's a better song if you do.
"Spare Parts" is a roots-rock song telling the story of "Bobby" and "Jane," who have a kid out of wedlock. Bobby abandons the two, Jane contemplates infanticide, but eventually finds the strength to pawn the engagement ring and wedding gown. I'm not gonna front; this is probably the song on the album I'm most likely to skip. It'd be great on any other E Street Band record, but it's a break from the first-person introspection that defines most of the rest of Tunnel of Love. This might be welcome to some, but when I'm listening to this record this song isn't why. For all this though, "Spare Parts" might be the GOAT example of The Boss' singular ability to turn anything into a car metaphor.
"Cautious Man" is another third-person song, but is stunningly beautiful in how well Bruce paints a picture of what love, fear, and loss mean. "On his right hand Billy'd tattooed the word 'love' and on his left hand was the word 'fear'/ And in which hand he held his fate was never clear" is up there with The Boss' all-time great lyrics. Over a quiet backing of finger-picked guitar and mandolin (both eventually joined by a luscious synth pad), Bruce reflects on a man who spends his entire existence building a life for his wife and himself. She passes away in her sleep, and suddenly he's left alone. The message here is what happened when love is driven by caution and fear: "Alone on his knees in the darkness for steadiness he'd pray/ For he knew in a restless heart the seed of betrayal lay." But all the safety, quiet, and steadiness in the world isn't enough to make love last eternally. This song is haunting as fuck, and Bruce himself has called it one of his all-time favorites of his.
"Walk Like A Man" is a return to the first-person as Bruce (on his wedding day) reflects on his mother and her influence. "I remember ma draggin' me and my sister up the street to the church/ Whenever she heard those wedding bells." The message of the song is one the universally-relatable message of uncertainty: Bruce needs the strength to go forward into a life he can't understand or predict. He looks to his mom for strength. Straight up, if you don't dance with your mom at this to a wedding, you're a failure of a son.
"Tunnel of Love" (in addition to being the title track, if you didn't notice that) is really the only straight-ahead love song on the record. The song uses an equally straight-ahead carnival metaphor to express Bruce's most optimistic view of love. Tellingly, this involves the album's central themes: darkness and uncertainty. "The lights go out and it's just the three of us/ You, me, and all that stuff we're so scared of/ Gotta ride down baby into this tunnel of love." Within the scope of this song (and only this song) this isn't a bad thing. As long as you have someone special next to you, the darkness and uncertainty can be a lot of fun. (Also, Nils Lofgren's guitar work on this song--his only contribution to the record--is straight fuego.)
"Two Faces" takes the theme of uncertainty and points it inwards: in this song, Bruce acknowledges two discrete halves of himself ("One that laughs, one that cries/ One says hello, one says goodbye/ One does things I don't understand/ Makes me feel like half a man") but admits that he doesn't know which one he truly is. The song is very pointedly personal, but left vague enough for listeners to form their own interpretation of what's actually happening.
Conversely, "Brilliant Disguise" takes the same idea and initially points it externally: "So tell me who I see/ When I look in your eyes/ Is that you baby?/ Or just a brilliant disguise?" The song (which btw is easily the highlight of the record) takes several lyrical cues from the previous song, most notably the willow tree. Eventually, Bruce points the accusatory finger back at himself: "So when you look at me/ You better look hard and look twice/ Is that me baby?/ Or just a brilliant disguise?" Doubt, paranoia, and (again) uncertainty define this song. How can love be real if you don't know who the person you're in love with even is? "I want to know if it's you I don't trust/ 'Cause I damn sure don't trust myself." Bruce's vision of love here is the other sign of the coin from "Tunnel of Love;" the same thing that makes love worth having--the willingness to blindly go on a ride with someone else--is what dooms a relationship.
(The music video is also all-time great status intense. Robert Altman couldn't leverage camera zooms as well.)
After such a tumultous ride, "One Step Up" is a chance to mellow out (sonically, at least). The song finds Bruce again admittingly guilty, turning his hands out for the world to see--speaking of guilt, this song is Bruce's most direct admission of the infidelity that put him in the place to make this record: "There's a girl across the bar/ I get the message she's sendin'/ Mmm she ain't lookin' too married/ And, me, well honey I'm pretending."
"When You're Alone" is the one track on the record I'd argue Bruce sounds bitter: "Now that pretty form that you've got baby/ Will make sure you get along/ But you're gonna find out some day honey/ When you're alone you're alone." He even makes a point to qualify his bitterness, singing: "Now it ain't hard feelings or nothin' sugar/ That ain't what's got me singing this song/ It's just nobody knows honey where love goes/ But when it goes it's gone gone." The bitterness isn't necessarily internal or external, but it's definitely held against something.
Album closer "Valentine's Day," in addition to being the reason Tunnel of Love is this week's #TBT pick, is another highlight. The song--despite its gentle bassline and synth pads--finds Bruce at (paradoxically) his most desperate but his most hopeful: "I'm driving a big lazy car rushin' up the highway in the dark/ I got one hand steady on the wheel and one hand's tremblin' over my heart/ It's pounding baby like it's gonna bust right on through/ And it ain't gonna stop till I'm alone again with you."
The song, like others on the record is about fear: "I woke up in the darkness scared and breathin' and born anew/ It wasn't the cold river bottom I felt rushing over me/ It wasn't the bitterness of a dream that didn't come true/ It wasn't the wind in the grey fields I felt rushing through my arms/ No no baby it was you." Whether Bruce is scared of losing the proverbial "you," or whether he's lost her and is deluding herself, isn't made clear in the scope of the song. But if you've listened to the record, you know the answer.
The songs from Tunnel of Love are among the least performed in the E Street Band's ouevre, and it's easy to see why--this is a painful, heartbroken record, a spectre looming over all of The Boss' back catalog. It's an understandably difficult type of record for an artist to embrace: one that captures a life at its nadir, that confronts a whole legion of internal demons, that directly references things Bruce doesn't want to remember. And these things are exactly what make Tunnel of Love so special.
I typically like to end #TBTs by providing some modern context for how a record has influenced music. That's not going to happen this week; records singularly about lost love were made long before Tunnel of Love and have continued to be made since. (Shoutout to Robin Thicke.)
Rather, the reason I chose Tunnel of Love for this special Valentine's edition of #TBT is because of how perfectly it captures one artist's vision of what love and loss mean. Bruce Springsteen--at least when he recorded Tunnel of Love--didn't have a very optimistic view of either. On the album, he makes it abundantly clear that love is a never-ending war against the unshakeable doubt and insecurity that not only causes us to build and pursue romance ("Cautious Man"), but causes us to lose it ("Brilliant Disguise"), and that defines love (the whole rest of the record). This isn't a record you make when you're in a good place, and--title track aside--it's not one you'd probably want to listen to when you're in a good place either.
Whether Bruce is right or wrong is left up to one's own experiences and opinions, but ultimately, the most powerful artistic statement that Tunnel of Love makes is how goddamn wrong Bruce hopes he is.
Happy Valentine's day to everyone reading this. Here's hoping I'll do something more lighthearted next year.