Monday, July 23, 2007

Tunnel of Love: An Appreciation

Sorry for the lack of posts, but I've been in Vienna for the past 11 days attending a scientific conference. I could write about my trip, but since I generally find peoples' travel stories quite boring, it would be hypocritical of me to do so. Suffice it to say that Vienna is lovely town, albeit somewhat staid - almost like a fine museum.

Instead, I'll write about something completely different. Before heading off to Europe, I loaded Bruce Springsteen's Tunnel of Love onto my mp3 player and I listened to it repeatedly during the trip. I've owned this album for a long time, but it had been awhile since I'd given it close attention. Simply put, I had forgotten how masterful this album is, and I feel compelled now to sing its praises. Released a few years after the mega-success of Born in the USA, ToL was greeted with coolness from critics and disappointment from fans. The songs were too inward, too stripped-down. Where were the rock anthems? But the album has aged well. If nothing else, ToL proves that Springsteen is not only a great singer and artist, but a great human being. No other album so clearly displays his compassion and sincerity, his depth of feeling, his desire to do good.

It's important to remember that the album was written during Springsteen's falling-out with his first wife. Yet we hear none of the angry rants so typical of break-up albums. Instead, Springsteen puts the blame squarely on himself. He thought he knew himself, he thought he knew what committed love was all about. But it has all turned into a hall of mirrors, where "the house is haunted and the ride gets rough" ("Tunnel of Love"). In "Brilliant Disguise" he sings:
Now look at me baby, struggling to do everything right
And then it all falls apart, when out go the lights
I'm just a lonely pilgrim, I walk this world in wealth
I want to know if it's you I don't trust,
'cause I damn sure don't trust myself...

Tonight our bed is cold, I'm lost in the darkness of our love
God have mercy on the man, who doubts what he's sure of
The last verse is simply heartbreaking, and the same theme is repeated in "One Step Up" (the highpoint of the album, in my opinion):
I'm sittin' here in this bar tonight, but all I'm thinkin' is
I'm the same old story same old act, One step up and two steps back

It's the same thing night on night, who's wrong baby who's right
Another fight and I slam the door on,
another battle in our dirty little war
When I look at myself I don't see the man I wanted to be
Somewhere along the line I slipped off track
I'm caught movin' one step up and two steps back

There's a girl across the bar, I get the message she's sendin'
Mmm she ain't lookin' to married, And me well honey I'm pretending
Last night I dreamed I held you in my arms, the music was never-ending
We danced as the evening sky faded to black
One step up and two steps back
Notice the abrupt transition in the last verse from the temptation of the "girl across the bar" to the longing for a fading love. This is real despair from a man who is not sure if he can find his way back to the man he wanted to be. Indeed, the pervasive emotion expressed by Springsteen in ToL is existential fear - fear of losing his marriage, fear of losing himself. His psyche is fractured and confused (see "Two Faces") and he prays for "the strength to walk like a man." Given all this, it's not surprising that the album is filled with religious overtones. In "Valentine's Day", for example, Springsteen has an experience of God's light that grants a rebirth from darkness to new life:
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 grey fields I felt rushing through my arms
No no baby it was you
So hold me close honey say you're forever mine
And tell me you'll be my lonely valentine
In my humble opinion, ToL conveys the grief of a lost marriage in a way surpassed only by Dylan's Blood on the Tracks (which also contains plenty of Christian/religious imagery). Given that few albums treat love and marriage with such maturity and insight, I'm amazed that it remains somewhat overlooked in the Springsteen corpus.


David said...

How has this post gotten this far without a comment? Wow! I have had this album for a long time as well, and haven't listened to it in ages. That will change very soon....very soon indeed!

John said...

Yes, this was very good.

I think I'll listen to _Nebraska_ this week.

von Gunten said...

Speaking of Springsteen: check out the Progressive Involvement post with Bruce singing a stirring version of "We Shall Overcome."

von Gunten said...

Sorry, that Springsteen Link is: