Human Touch

Bruce Springsteen

Columbia Records, 1992

http://www.brucespringsteen.net

REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 04/21/2005

I've considered for some time whether Human Touch might have a double meaning as the title of Bruce Springsteen's ninth studio album.

Yes, there's the implied reference in the title song itself to sexual healing (see also "Leap Of Faith" on the simultaneously-released Lucky Town album), but it may also reflect that this is among the most human-scaled of Springsteen's albums. Prior to this disc, he was always shooting for one impossibly huge target or another artistically; here, he seems to have no loftier purpose in mind than simply writing and playing a half-decent album of guitar-based rock.

That was probably a reasonable approach to take after all the changes the man had just been through -- divorcing his first wife, marrying backup singer Patti Scialfa, becoming a father and dismissing his longtime partners in crime the E Street Band. Back to basics has a certain logic to it under those kinds of circumstances.

The thing is, nothing about Springsteen's music has ever been basic; even the party-hearty frat-boy numbers scattered through The River had dark shadings, not to mention the emotional depth and context provided by that album's more ambitious numbers. Here, that context seems muted, confused, occasionally even absent. The album is long (14 songs and almost 60 minutes of music) and uncharacteristically unfocused.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

There's a mid-tempo white soul number ("Cross My Heart"), an awkward attempt at redefining manhood ("Real Man"), and a bass-driven rant -- "57 Channels (And Nothin' On)" -- that crosses the line between angry and goofy several times without reaching a satisfying conclusion. There's even a rhythm and blues-styled cut ("Roll Of The Dice") that reaches back so hard for past glories that you detect a hint of desperation, although Springsteen redeems the song with one great line: "I'm a thief in the house of love / And I can't be trusted."

Ultimately, though, the biggest disappointment here is the way the rockers fail to ignite. "Gloria's Eyes," "All Or Nothin' At All" and "The Long Goodbye" feature driving rhythms and push Springsteen's muscular guitar playing farther out front than it's ever been before, but none of them shows more than a quick flash of the emotional depth and purpose that's always been at the heart of Springsteen's best work.

The best songs here are the ones where Springsteen remembers who is he is and takes some chances and/or invests some genuine passion. "I Wish I Were Blind" is one of Springsteen's finer ballads, its initial stately pace building to a strong finish with help from Righteous Brother Bobby Hatfield's high harmony vocals and a magnificent fadeout guitar solo. "With Every Wish" would be a solid track based solely on Springsteen's contemplative lyric about the dark side of wishing, but the addition of Mark Isham's muted trumpet is simply brilliant. And "Real World," "Man's Job" and the title track, while they don't make any great artistic statements, have strong moments and good energy.

Besides the comparatively superficial approach to lyrics, the greatest flaw of the album lies in the choices Springsteen and Bittan make regarding keyboards and production (Bittan received his first co-producer credit on this disc). More often than not, they go with electronic keyboards over Bittan's trademark piano, and the production values are slicker than any other album in Springsteen's catalogue. This gives the music a cold, impersonal sheen that feels out of sync with Springsteen's typically earthy, loose, raucous musical approach.

If Springsteen's lone goal here was to put together a half-decent album of guitar-based rock, he hit his mark. In another artist's catalogue, this disc might be worthy of notice thanks to the presence of tracks like "I Wish I Were Blind." But for an artist as accomplished as Bruce Springsteen, it qualified as a significant disappointment, his least notable recording since Greetings From Asbury Park almost 20 years before and -- the real tragedy -- a misstep that nearly obscured the quality of its far superior companion piece Lucky Town .

Rating: C+

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