In my review of MAGIC, Springsteen's new 2007 album, I confessed that I never listened to TUNNEL OF LOVE. Not because thought it wasn't worth my time, but simply because I had never gotten around to it. Given how much I like BORN IN THE USA, and a lot of Springsteen's catalogue, I figured this would be a pretty logical album to begin exploring, especially after I was taken to task by a one of the commenters on my MAGIC review.
Since I wrote that review, I've taken the time to listen to TUNNEL OF LOVE. Truthfully, I've been listening to it a lot. I'm still coming to terms with the album, but I do find the record rather invigorating, and rather fun to listen too, fun like a BLOOD ON THE TRACKS kind of way.
When Springsteen had a big commercial success with the double LP THE RIVER in 1980, he followed that album up with NEBRASKA, a stark, acoustic affair of demo recordings. Depressing stuff. Nothing anthemic at all, not what arena rockers are looking for. Good record though.
Then when he did BORN IN THE USA in 1984, which has a bright, poppy sound, though still rather dark lyrically, Springsteen was catapulted to the upper echelon or rock and roll immortality. While you could argue he did that almost a decade previous with BORN TO RUN critically, without a doubt BORN IN THE USA is what really broke him into the national music scene and made him one of the biggest rock stars of the early 1980s, USA being on level with THRILLER by Michael Jackson and 1984 by Van Halen. Of course when you have a big album like USA, there's always the question of the follow up.
Fortunately, he did not make another NEBRASKA, which would then be almost formulaic (big commercial success, THE RIVER, acoustic and dark, NEBRASKA, big commercial success, BORN IN THE USA, stark acoustic affair, repeat ad nausem. You get the idea). So how do you follow up a commercial juggernaut like BORN IN THE USA?
By turning in almost a "concept album" about love, marriage, the ups and downs of commitment and how the sexes relate to one another. While I hesitate to use the term "concept album", which has as many negative connotations as it does positive, there is a certain amount of truth in the term. While Springsteen has always been focused lyrically on blue-collar America and all the harsh realities that often entails, with TUNNEL he's in a much different mind-set than he was, say, in DARKNESS ON THE EDGE OF TOWN or BORN TO RUN. Here, he's writing about love, but it's just as often not all it's cracked up to be.
Lyrically, Bruce is focused on romantic relationships, and quite a few of them are not in a happy state. His marriage with model Julianne Phillips was in the midst of failure, and it was during this domestic situation he wrote the songs on TUNNEL OF LOVE. A lot of the songs are deeply conflicted, full of pain, and you can tell Springsteen is just struggling to keep the ship on an even keel in regards to his home life. He also writes a song "Walks like a man", yet another song about his relationship with his father.
The opening song, "Ain't Got You", an upbeat, fast tempo song, has Springsteen lamenting that for all his success he still doesn't have a true love. One of my favorite Springsteen lyrics (and the title of this review) come from this song: "Getting paid a king's ransom to do what comes naturally." Like most famous entertainers who have become legends in their prospective fields, this couldn't be more true. Look at Dylan, McCartney, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Eddie Vedder, Pete Townshend, Jimmy Page, any number of high profile rock and roll stars.
While TUNNEL has a lot to do with his homelife, don't go into the album expecting something similar to Bob Dylan's masterpiece BLOOD ON THE TRACKS, because the albums have surprising little in common. For one, BLOOD, written and recorded a full 13 years earlier, has a much starker sound. Dylan wrote BLOOD while his marriage was literally falling apart, and you can feel Dylan's anger and pain dripping off each note played. The music is intimate and personal (save for "Idiot Wind", where Dylan's more pissed off than hurt, at both his soon-to-be ex-wife Sara and himself, and a particular favorite of mine "Lily, Rosemary, and the Jack of Hearts", a short story set in the old west), and set the template for a lot of singer-songwriters. If you're looking for something similar to BLOOD, listen to Dylan's own TIME OUT OF MIND, which is BLOOD's principal narrators aged twenty three years, or Beck's 2002 album SEA CHANGE, a great breakup album.
TUNNEL, on the other hand, sounds like a natural sequel to BORN IN THE USA, musically at least. The music sounds very much like a mainstream rock album would in the 1980s. You could argue TUNNEL even sounds rather dated, though I do not mean that in the negative context that term often implies. The music is bright and poppy, even though it is still one of Springsteen's most introspective records lyrically. Sure, there are a couple of moments where the music sounds low-key and intimate, but overall, despite all its lyrical explorations, Springsteen has always been first and foremost a rock musician, and he dresses his lyrics in strongly arranged settings.
Not surprisingly, the album met with strong sales, and had some high selling singles. Again, not so surprising, the album did not meet the success of USA, which still remains Springsteen's commercial, if not necessarily his critical, xenith. Still, you can't help but think a lot of TUNNEL's success was from career momentum as much as anything else.
So where does TUNNEL stand in regards to the rest of his discography? Pretty high up. Those who like USA will really like this, as well as MAGIC. For my money, these albums form a rather loose trilogy, bound together musically, though not necessarily lyrically. These three albums sound more of a piece, music in a similar vein, than any of Springsteen's other albums, much like NEBRASKA, GHOST OF TOM JOAD, and DEVILS & DUST feels like its own trilogy. Springsteen even ends TUNNEL in the same way as he does USA - a mid-tempo, rather depressing song that sounds pretty similar to "My Home Town", the last song on USA.
Overall, TUNNEL OF LOVE is the connector between USA and MAGIC. Springsteen has some great songs here, pretty introspective stuff. Like USA the music itself is feel-good, anthemic rock and roll, even though the lyrics have an unusual amount of pain in them, given the music that accompanies them.
Tunnel of Love chart positions:
Album Sales: US #1; UK #1
"Brilliant Disguise": #1
"Tunnel of Love": #1
"One Step Up": #2
"All That Heaven Will Allow": #5
"Tougher Than the Rest": #13