Tunnel Of Love
Columbia Records, 1987
REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 02/12/2004
Whether or not this is in fact the loneliest album ever recorded -- an arguable point -- it's without a doubt the loneliest album of Bruce Springsteen's brotherhood-anthem-filled career.
Lonelier than Nebraska, you ask, where he sang solo over his own acoustic guitar about the solitary lives of highway patrolmen, Atlantic City desperadoes and stone cold killers? Yes. Because there's no lonelier feeling in the world than feeling alone inside the one relationship you're counting on the most -- your own marriage.
Some background is necessary. Bachelor Bruce had finally succumbed to marriage in 1985, toward the tail end of the biggest commercial explosion of his career. The monster album Born In The USA, wall-to-wall video coverage on MTV, and a sold-out, global stadium tour had put Springsteen's name on the lips of half the developed world (while the other half -- notably President Reagan's re-election campaign staff -- were still trying to figure out who he was).
Somewhere along the road, he had hooked up with -- of all choices for a New Jersey street rat -- a Hollywood actress, Julianne Phillips. The tabloids jumped on the case and before you knew it, they were everywhere you looked. (The Rock Star and the Actress -- yeah, that moves papers.) The whole thing took on an inevitable momentum, and pretty soon their wedding was the headline in The Star et al. A couple of years later, all the same papers were headlining the messy dissolution of the marriage. (Calling these folks vultures seems entirely too kind…)
In between these two events, this disc arrived, an album confessing in brutal and courageous detail every misstep in a doomed relationship.
The sense of isolation and alienation is pervasive. In Nebraska, Springsteen sang in the voice of characters he was creating, second identities that immediately made the room feel crowded; here, his narrators are all either him or thinly-disguised mirror-images. Even the music betrays his sense of isolation -- spare, mostly acoustic guitars and synth textures, with the sparsest E Street Band presence of any album other than Nebraska.
For the sake of contrast, Springsteen starts out on a relatively light note, parodying the mixture of exasperation, amusement and resentment inspired by his sudden fame in the autobiographical narrative of "Ain't Got You": "I been around the world and all across the seven seas / Been paid a king's ransom for doin' what comes naturally / But I'm still the biggest fool, honey, this world ever knew / 'Cause the only thing I ain't got, baby, I ain't got you." None of the hoopla matters, because inside it all, Springsteen feels more alone than ever.
This sense of isolation and self-doubt weaves its way through the remainder of the album, from the self-flagellating ballads "Two Faces" and "One Step Up" to the brutally pragmatic, roadhouse-rocking story-song "Spare Parts" ("Took 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"). Even in the album's two love songs -- the stately, passionate "Tougher Than The Rest" and the countrified, romantic "All That Heaven Will Allow" -- it's made clear that the relationships are struggling to win out against heavy odds.
This makes for rough going, but also for spectacular songwriting.
"Cautious Man" is a tale full of allegory, about a guy who can't let go of his demons, and instead carries them right into his marriage, where he knows "in a restless heart the seeds of betrayal lay." Eventually the narrator's nameless desperation leads him to bolt from his marriage bed into the night, but when he reaches the highway, he finds "nothing but road." So he returns, to fight the battle within himself once more.
My personal favorite on this disc, though, is the remarkable "Brilliant Disguise." I don't think there's ever been a more perceptive or fearless examination of the disintegration of a relationship in song. The essential theme is how the corrosion of trust can eat away at a couple's intimacy until you're left with nothing but a hollow, false facade. The song -- steady-building and intense, featuring acoustic guitar, bass, piano, organ and percussion -- also nails other relationship truths such as the way self-doubt can spawn larger doubts, and the fact that trying too hard almost always makes things worse. Chills, every time.
This album is full of striking images, dead-on allegories, and a deep sense of revelation, but one image in particular is central. The Cautious Man -- in a nod to the movie Cape Fear -- has tattoos on both sets of knuckles: "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." And there it is. The opposite of love isn't hate, it's fear. Fear prevents intimacy and love, and creates suspicion and resentment. You can't truly love until you let go of the fear. (A message Springsteen repeats in the title track -- "Then the lights go out and it's just the three of us / You, me and all that stuff we're so scared of…")
Tunnel of Love is one of the clearest and frankest views an artist has ever offered of what a crumbling relationship looks like from the inside. This album isn't an easy listen, but it's full of moody, evocative music and superb lyrics that tell hard, lonely truths.