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Springsteen's Darkest Dreams

October 04, 1987|ROBERT HILBURN

It ought to be easy, ought to be simple enough

Man meets a woman and they fall in love.

But the house is haunted and the ride gets rough ... in this tunnel of love.

--from Bruce Springsteen's

"Tunnel of Love"

Bruce Springsteen's "Tunnel of Love" album is an homage to the human spirit that craves for the inspiration and support of true love but acknowledges the darkest fears that such love may, in fact, be only an elusive, heart-shattering dream.

The album, which will be released Monday by Columbia Records, is a remarkable combination of the unbending romanticism of "Jersey Girl"--the sweet, endearing Tom Waits ballad that Springsteen used to end last year's live album--and the stark, almost cold-sweat anxiety of his earlier "Nebraska" LP.

In one of the collection's most disarming songs, "All That Heaven Will Allow," Springsteen echoes the intoxicating moment in "Jersey Girl" when you feel so totally in love that nothing can threaten your happiness. Building upon that wholly optimistic image, Springsteen rejects, in passing, rock's early, youthful live-fast/die-young thesis.

Sample lyrics:

Now some may wanna die young, man

Young and gloriously

Get it straight now mister

Hey buddy, th a t ain't me.

'Cause I got something on my mind

That sets me straight and walkin' proud

And I want all the time

All that heaven will allow.

But "Tunnel of Love" isn't simply a statement of romantic bliss. Springsteen, himself now married, has always tended to re-assess; "Darkness on the Edge of Town," "The River" and, especially, "Nebraska" were all albums that explored the underside of the celebration of the American Dream outlined in "Born to Run."

In that same spirit, most of these 12 new songs examine the complexities of the love outlined in "Jersey Girl," "Heaven Will Allow" and so much else in the storehouse of pop music. Several of the songs touch on dark, troubled, disabling emotions but they don't follow the predictable pattern of simply wondering if things will work out . . . or, more pointedly, if she'll always be true.

The main questions deal with living up to your own responsibilities. The horror is that, after finding your dream, you may destroy it.

"Spare Parts," which follows "Heaven," shows how quickly the initial infatuation can fall apart. A young woman becomes pregnant and the man runs away rather than follow through with wedding plans. "Cautious Man" is the story of someone unraveled by his own insecurities, leaving him--in the words of another song--a man who "doubts what he's sure of." The songs aren't merely heartache but dread.

In one of the album's most graphic passages, Springsteen sings:

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.

"Walk Like a Man" is the album's most idealistic song, one which asks for the strength to fulfill your vows. At the altar on his wedding day, a bridegroom remembers how his mother used to take him as a child to the neighborhood church every time the wedding bells rang to watch the happy young couples. The bridegroom's image of those days: wondering if they'd ever look that happy again.

"Two Faces" also deals with inner-struggle, while "Brilliant Disguise," the first single from the album, is the most provocative look at responsibility. It's initial verses are conventional: The man in the song wonders if the woman is true. The second half of the song offers a twist: a look at one's own impulses that--as harrowing as anything in "Nebraska"--asks fundamental questions about integrity and will.

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 .

There is no resolve in the album any more than there is resolve in life. These songs merely remind us, in an uncommonly affecting way, about the precious yet precarious nature of love in these times. In some way, the theme isn't so much true love but modern love.

With the profound shifts in attitudes toward such matters as divorce, one-parent homes and live-in relationships, there are no longer formal boundaries that force couples to stay together. This gives them the freedom to pursue the personal happiness that once seemed to be only an incidental part of raising a family. This freedom also invites impatience and selfishness, turning relationships into just another disposable commodity.

As much as any album in rock, "Tunnel of Love" focuses on modern love in a way that makes the dangers seem so agonizingly real that love's inspiration and support--when found--becomes all the more blessed.

One of the criticisms of Springsteen is that he relies on the same images, and these songs are filled with references to cars and the night. But there is an unmistakable maturity.

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