For Bruce Springsteen, love is a many-splendored thing. Also a many-splintered thing. On his new album, "Tunnel of Love," which appears in stores today, Springsteen takes a long, somber look at the landscape of the heart and finds mostly rough terrain.
"It ought to be easy, ought to be simple enough," he writes in the title song, "man meets a woman and they fall in love/ But the house is haunted and the ride gets rough/ And you've got to learn to live with what you can't rise above/ If you want to ride on down in through this tunnel of love."
Springsteen's 12-song cycle is more like a roller coaster of love, moving from the intoxicating highs of "All That Heaven Will Allow" and "Valentine's Day" to the sobering lows of "Spare Parts" and "When You're Alone." But there's a surprising variety of moods on this ride, and folks who have chided Springsteen in the past for a tendency to anthemize even his ballads will find this album a thoughtful and subdued work that's very much in the mold-breaking and myth-busting tradition of "Darkness at the Edge of Town" and "Nebraska."
It's not that Springsteen is the first writer to address the confusions of the heart -- I recall some obscure singles by Sappho and the Islanders -- but putting out such an introspective and intimate collection on the heels of the hard-charging "Born in the U.S.A." and the heroically structured "Live" set is an intriguing move. It contains some of Springsteen's most personal work and could very well provide the demythologizing he must crave. But "Tunnel of Love" (Columbia, LP, cassette and CD) is also the response of a mature artist trying to return to the focus to what he's saying, not how he's saying it.
That's part of what Springsteen was attempting on "Nebraska," the 1981 solo acoustic album on which he took his fascination with Woody Guthrie to an extreme. Although they all bear 1987 copyrights, several "Tunnel of Love" songs sound like leftovers from that album. This is most apparent on "Cautious Man," a starkly etched Guthrie-esque ballad about Bill Horton, a "man of the road" who "when something caught his eye he'd measure his need/ And then very carefully he'd proceed," in this case into a surprising courtship and marriage.
But Bill's the classically insecure modern male -- on his right hand the word "love" is tattooed, on the left, "fear" (nice twist there) -- and he goes through some emotional changes over his commitment. One night, restless and uneasy, Bill heads for the highway, which has always represented freedom and possibility, but "when he got there he didn't find nothing but road." So he goes home to his sleeping wife and brushes the hair from her face "as the moon shone on her skin so white/ Filling their room in the beauty of God's fallen light."
Most rock 'n' roll will tell you that home is wherever you hang your hat, but Springsteen is suggesting here that home is where the heart is, even if it's not always a happy heart or a happy home. Love can be the redeemer, but it can just as often be the destroyer of dreams.
For instance, in the terse "Spare Parts," Janey gets pregnant, and Bobby pulls out of the relationship, leaving her with baby and shattered aspirations. After thinking about infanticide, Janey reaches into her bureau for her old engagement ring: "Took out her wedding dress, tied that ring up in its sash/ Went straight down to the pawn shop man and walked out with some good cold cash." End of story, beginning of getting on with life.
There are other, similar surprises on "Tunnel of Love," but, Springsteen suggests, that's the way love is. True, he works within the blue-collar parameters he's most comfortable with, but there's little of the sense of hopelessness that makes so much of Springsteen's recent work emotionally disquieting.
For instance, he's not inconsistent in vacillating between the optimism of "All That Heaven Will Allow" and the pragmatism of "One Step Up." The first song, with its supple melody and subtle vocal delivery, reflects the emotional idealism and the sheer physical exhilaration of falling in love and the changes -- echoed in other songs as well -- that come with such a commitment.
"Now some may wanna die young man/ Young and gloriously/ Get it straight now mister/ Hey buddy that ain't me/ 'Cause I got something on my mind/ That sets me straight and walkin' proud/ And I want all the time that heaven will allow."
"One Step Up" is that same infatuation fulfilled and a few years advanced, when hearts have slipped off track and love's like an engine that won't turn. But while Springsteen acknowledges tensions, he doesn't apportion blame. After all, it takes two to tangle.
"Brilliant Disguise," the album's first single, extends that theme with the protagonist wondering if his partner's being unfaithful, then turning his apprehensions and sense of inadequacy on himself: "I wanna know if it's you I don't trust/ 'Cause I damn sure don't trust myself." (This is one of the few cuts on "Tunnel of Love" with a distinct rock feel, in this case the big sound and heroic confusion of a classic Roy Orbison song, particularly in the chorus.)
A less successful expansion on this theme is "Two Faces." With its tense techno-gloss, it's reminiscent of "I'm on Fire" (maybe "I'm Burned Out"?), but the lyrics are somewhat mundane, a problem that also weakens "When You're Alone," a cautionary catalogue for the disconnected.
The album's only other weak song is "Ain't Got You," which is also a catalogue, this one of all the empty pleasures that can't offset the absence of a loved one. It's just Springsteen, his guitar and a Diddley beat, a setting in which his singing tends to overwhelm the song.
"Tunnel of Love" is very definitely a Springsteen solo project. On seven songs, the only participating E Street Band member is drummer Max Weinberg. The album isn't a stark production like "Nebraska," but it's very simple and uncluttered. Springsteen plays most of the instruments himself through multitracking, and while the accent is on acoustic guitar, he also acquits himself well on bass, organ and synthesizer.
On several other cuts, Danny Federici contributes some organ and Patti Scialfa some deep background vocals. Clarence Clemons plays no saxophone and contributes only one background vocal. The closest we get to an E Street track is the title cut, which features Weinberg, Scialfa, Roy Bittan and Nils Lofgren, who also delivers the only real guitar solo heard on the record, though the song doesn't pound as much as it pulsates.
With its twangy guitar, evocative harmonica and social bravado, "Tougher Than the Rest" echoes the E Street Band's rendition of "No Surrender," but it's still mostly Springsteen.
Some people found it ironic that Springsteen ended his five-record live set with a gently rolling love song, and a nonoriginal at that -- Tom Waits' "Jersey Girl" -- but he may even then have been laying the foundation for this album. Now he's got his own sentimental ballads. "All That Heaven Will Allow" is a gem, as is "Walk Like a Man," in which the singer recalls his mother taking him to a nearby church whenever there was a wedding and how he'd watch the newlyweds stepping "into that long black limousine for their mystery ride." Now he's past his own wedding day, full of apprehension, but strengthened by those memories and his mother's dreams.
The album's best song, or at least the one fans are likely to cherish most, is "Valentine's Day" (and while it's a silly game trying to identify which songs are autobiographical, this one certainly seems directed to Springsteen's wife Julianne).
"Valentine's Day" is a lovely confessional waltz, sentimental and just right. It has a little of Waits' singsong charm and an echo of "Cautious Man's" ambivalence between love and fear. But mostly it's a testament to recharted values and the lasting blush of love. In it, Springsteen is driving home, rushing back to heart and hearth, emotionally charged by a friend's having become a father the night before. The song is simple, the sentiments complex, the singing as direct and honest as anything Springsteen has ever done.
They say if you die in your dreams you really die in your bed
But honey last night I dreamed my eyes rolled straight back in my head
And God's light came shinin' on through
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 gray fields I felt rushing through my arms
No baby baby it was you ...
"Tunnel of Love" is Bruce Springsteen's most intimate album, because it's his most personal album, full of light and dark, pleasure and pain, need and obsession. It bristles with the pressures that come with having dreams come true and then having to live with the attendant responsibilities. Springsteen offers no answers, no bromides, just the tensions and releases that abound in both true love and true life. It's an album not only worth listening to, but well worth thinking about.