November 15, 2007

Sous Chef or Assistant Manager

I have never seemed to buy into the myth of The Boss. During my teenage years, when I was first heavily exposed to the canon of classic rock, so many other artists captured my imagination. The Middle-Earth epic battle screams and guitar blasts of Led Zeppelin and their shark part cunnilingus shenanigans with hordes of groupies seemed utterly captivating. The voodoo/Native American shaman magic via the hipster and gritty London underground club rock of Jimi Hendrix was awe-inspiring. Even the extended family, ultra blue collar personas of Skynyrd and The Allmans were most admirable and uplifting.

Bruce Springsteen and his ragged bunch of East Coasters, on the other hand, seemed so pedestrian and remote, no matter his magazine cover success of the 1970s and 80s and the Jon Landau proclamations of Bruce being the future of rock. So, like other famous classic rock acts like Queen and Deep Purple, Bruce and his music have remained relatively unfamiliar territory to me.

Despite my ignorance of the Jersey Coast’s favourite son, Tunnel of Love has, curiously enough, always intrigued me. Probably based on things I have read over the years, I have had this romantic notion that Tunnel was this grossly underrated album, the true masterpiece of his since his 1970s work, and the one album that I needed to hear first to really delved into the oeuvre of The Bossman. Quite simply, I was rather excited to hear Tunnel of Love.

Well, while not a bad album by any stretch of the imagination, Tunnel of Love was a mild disappointment for me. It’s a competent album with its fair share of well crafted lyrics and catchy tracks, but it seems to just to float so gradually and benignly with quaint melodies and memories of longing, unrequited love, and romantic mistakes. Worse, it is often lacking the impact pathos that one would expect from an album that is tied so closely with Bruce’s personal travails of the time. No doubt, it was a cathartic process for Bruce, but the listener is left a bit perplexed and annoyed with its coded self-pity (third person life snippets) and excessive introspection with a rather tame background sound that doesn’t do justice to the thematic presentation.

Some might find the sounds on the album a bit dated. Clearly the 80s keyboard (a la Bruce Hornsby), R&B adult contemporary background singing, and semi-wanker, Dire Straights-esque guitar effects gently permeate the album, although not too obnoxiously, thank heaven. For me, however, that is not a major concern and can even give an album its unique charm, as is the case with the title track, one of my favourites of Bruce and of the 1980s. “Brilliant Disguise” also has the late Roy Orbison via Traveling Wilburys feel, which is fun and catchy, but lacks a couple of right hooks or battle scars to really be remembered with the passing of the years. “Valentine’s Day” gently swaying ( although somewhat dated) organ sound is effective and, along with Bruce’s vocal tone, provides one of the few moving and contemplative moments on the album.

Amidst the simple charms, however, are some wince-producing moments. “Spare Parts” unfortunately foreshadows Toby Keith and Brooks and Dunn. “When You’re Alone” is a countrified, Salvation Army effort at what The Smiths did so brilliantly at around the same time: glorious self-pity and melancholy. “Tougher Than the Rest” is a rich-man’s Don Henley, but its still Henley-esque of the 80s variety. “Ain’t Got You” is rockified Blues 101 and seems a bit too obvious and gratuitous as an opener on an album that aspires for greater things, especially the painting of more complex emotional imagery.

What helps saves the album in many key points is Bruce’s voice, a great instrumental tool in transmitting delightfully engrossing cadence and in helping to turn the corner on so many otherwise difficult lyrical lines. “Two Faces” is a great example of this, with its haunting feel of Orbison and Bruce’s own “I’m On Fire”. Notice how his voice and the simply accompanying backbeat carry the song and make the intervals of organ music seem almost out of place or excessive. On “Tunnel of Love”, Bruce’s rhythmic chant, “Cuddle up, angel, cuddle up my little dove” has enough swoon and boogie to make the toughest of hearts a bit giddy and emotional. Too bad, then, that several of the songs take the straight up narrative singing approach and, hence, come across a bit monotonous at times.

So, in the end, mild disappointment is my immediate reaction to Tunnel of Love. That being said, I do not dislike the album and, in fact, find it generally rather appeasing to the ears, especially in the hectic commutes in the city. Unfortunately, amicable and mildly engrossing are not enough for a top 500 album mention, even with The Boss legends – which I still find difficult to appreciate – and the guilty pleasure “Cuddle up, angel, cuddle up my little dove” lyrics informing and running through this piece of work.


venerableseed said...

Maybe it didn't come across in my post but I approached Tunnel of Love with the same anticipation. Only with each progressive listen I got more the-emperor-has-no-clothes-ish. I wanted it to be a lost masterpiece b/c it's fun to find those (even when 6 million other people have listened to the album).

I had also heard so much about how personal the album was and, perversely, I wanted to hear his pain. Like you said, Bruce wasn't as cathartic and the album wasn't as personal as our hopes and the plaudits suggested.

Without those expectations maybe I could have enjoyed Tunnel as nice little album which is probably its rightful place.

Eurowags said...

Venerable, you are dead on when you point out that expectations affected my listening of the album. Like I mention, I had read so much about how this was his somewhat forgotten masterpiece. I also was drawn to it as it seemed like the underdog next to the super massive (sound, sales, thematic content etc.) Born in the USA and one that people dismissed too quickly.
Ironically, although I didn't find it as great as I wanted, I suspect it is one of the Bruce albums that I would enjoy most.

venerableseed said...

I hope it's not the one I like best but I have no idea. But I do know that I'm not approaching any of the others with overblown expectations.