Born in the U.S.A. is never easy. The anticipation and expectations become so great, and there's always a large part of your audience that wants exactly the same thing, all over again. Which is why Tunnel of Love represents a huge gambit on Springsteen's part. One that, on financial terms, wasn't a total success (it only went triple Platinum), but, in my humble opinion, was on an artistic level.
The bombastic 80's production of the previous record is largely gone, as is the E-Street Band, for the most part. Springsteen plays most of the instruments himself, and, as such, this Springsteen/Jon Landau/Chuck Plotkin produced work is considered a "solo" album (though his name as always appeared alone on studio albums, even with the E-Street Band). In place of these elements from the previous album are a series of tunes featuring introspective lyrics about relationships between men and women. A subject matter that Springsteen had only explored in a cursory way prior.
Tunnel of Love has been called "The Divorce Album" by some, due to it's release and tour coinciding with his break up with actress Julianne Phillips. The tour, which did feature the E-Street Band, brought Patti Scialfa front and center as Springsteen's foil in these relationship songs. They began an affair, his marriage to Phillips ended, and Bruce and Patti have been together ever since. I'm not one to drag personal lives into these things, but...it's pretty much what the entire album is about. Clearly Patti was, and is, Springsteen's life-partner. Not everyone gets it right the first time, as I can well attest.
I think it's pretty damn clear from the album that things were not all peaches and cream in the Springsteen/Phillips marriage. The songs are almost universally about men and women in relationships and trying to connect, sometimes succeeding, sometimes failing. Listening to Brilliant Disguise, and knowing what, ultimately, was going on in the Springsteen marriage, gives it a emotional heft beyond the fantastic words and music. You see exactly how much of himself Bruce was offering up for his listeners;
Across the board, Springsteen never lets himself off the hook. In songs like Two Faces, he's brutally honest about the weaknesses in himself, and how he tries to hide them;Now you play the loving woman
I'll play the faithful man
But just don't look too close
into the palm of my hand
I met a girl and we ran awayIt also features some fantastic love songs, like Tougher Than the Rest, which is likely my favorite love song, ever (the video is also a fantastic piece of work). As well as a great rock number, that still hews to the theme of the album, in Spare Parts (one of my favorite guitar riffs, ever). Point being, it's not just a slog through depression. It's an exploration of love, in all it's states and forms, in victory and defeat.
I swore I'd make her happy every day
And how I made her cry
Two faces have I
It's certainly a record I can immediately, and powerfully, connect with every, single time I listen to it. I mean, everyone has ups and downs in relationships, and Springsteen cuts right to the heart of that. There's also the very apparent undercurrent, for me, that many of my problems are of my own making. Springsteen feels the same way, and, again, his words and music bring that right to the surface.
It's for these reasons alone that Tunnel of Love is a very, very close second in my list of favorite Springsteen albums. The sheer honesty, and unblinking self-evaluation, is powerful. It's a naked record, one I certainly believe is the most personal in his catalog. I'd also say that while I, personally enjoy The Wild, the Innocent and the E-Street Shuffle more, I think Tunnel of Love is Springsteen's best stand-alone work.
Yeah, I think it kicks Nebraska's ass....