By Brian Ives
Twenty-five years ago this week, Bruce Springsteen released two albums on the same day (March 31) – ‘Human Touch‘ and ‘Lucky Town.’ They were his first albums since breaking up the E Street Band, since leaving New Jersey for Los Angeles, and since becoming a father.
It was May 18, 2014, and Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band were finishing their latest tour —promoting his Wrecking Ball and High Hopes albums—at Connecticut’s Mohegan Sun Arena. They opened with a tour premiere: “Roll of the Dice,” from Human Touch. It was met with roaring crowd approval. They followed it with “Leap of Faith” from Lucky Town, which was also met with delight from the audience. Sure, the songs worked thematically, as Mohegan Sun is a casino.
But it was a far cry from the early ’90s, when these songs, and all of the others from Human Touch and Lucky Town, were seen by a large segment of his audience as his “new sound.” And “new” wasn’t something they necessarily wanted. This new phase was looked at with skepticism: the songs didn’t feature the E Street Band, and some of them actually sounded happy. As Springsteen himself said at his 1999 induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame after thanking his father, he laughed and asked, “What would I conceivably have written about without him? If everything had gone great between us, it would have been a disaster! I would have written just happy songs. I tried that in the early ’90s, it didn’t work, the public didn’t like it!” What he didn’t say was, that was where he was at during that era of his life.
For all of Springsteen’s success, he always followed his artistic instincts, and he was always honest. The box sets that he’s released over the past few years around Darkness on the Edge of Town and The River showed just how many songs he recorded to finally arrive at his vision of a finished album; he wasn’t a guy who rushed things. And, as evidenced by Nebraska and Tunnel of Love, he didn’t take the easiest path towards record sales.
In the early ’90s, he was in his 40s and incredibly successful, but was still following his muse. And that certainly didn’t mean reverting to the guy on the cover of Born in the U.S.A. As he sang on “Lucky Town,” “House got too crowded, clothes got too tight.” Although his waist size probably hadn’t actually changed, he just didn’t fit those clothes anymore.
After years of albums filled with angst and tension, who could begrudge him some happiness? In the Lucky Town liner notes, there’s a picture of a shirtless, goateed Bruce, holding a beer, with his wife Patti Scialfa’s arm around him. They look happy.
But for some artists, happiness isn’t the optimal state of mind in which to create great art. That may have been true for Springsteen. Plus, it wasn’t clear where his music fit in the landscape of the ’90s: Album Oriented Rock radio was becoming Classic Rock radio. Stations were no longer as interested in the new music by icons as they were in catalog hits. Stations that did play new rock music would have rejected Springsteen as a member of the old guard: this was the era of alternative rock, metal, and hip-hop. It didn’t seem like there was a “lane” for a new Bruce Springsteen record, much less two Bruce Springsteen records. And he was aware of that. When Rolling Stone asked him if he thought that a teenage rap or heavy metal fan would be interested in his new albums, he responded, “I don’t know… All I can do is put my music out there. I can’t contrive something that doesn’t feel honest. I don’t write demographically. I don’t write a song to reach these people or those people.”
Human Touch, however, seemed to be aimed at, for lack of a better way to put it, “those people” in the VH1 audience, alongside fellow veterans Elton, Henley, Tina, Clapton, and Rod. On the album, Springsteen retained keyboardist Roy Bittan from the E Street Band and hired two of L.A.’s most in-demand session musicians: a pre-American Idol Randy Jackson on bass and Toto’s Jeff Porcaro on drums. The title track was our first taste of the album(s), and while it certainly sounded ready for the Adult Contemporary market, it held up to his catalog: “Tell me, in a world without pity/Do you think what I’m askin’s too much?/I just want something to hold on to/and a little of that human touch,” seemed as honest as anything he had written prior; it was an anthem for middle-aged people, and not necessarily working class middle aged people.
“57 Channels (and Nothin’ On)” was something we could all relate to: this was at the dawn of the exploding cable television era, and the internet was just on the horizon. It’s surprising that it hasn’t resurfaced in his setlists since the ’92/’93 tour, as it seems more relevant than ever in the era of fake and hyper-partisan news. It was one of his more experimental songs, featuring a funky Bruce-played bassline and no guitar at all (although a remix by Little Steven added guitar as well as “Zoo TV”-type media samples).
The album also had some flirty rockers “All or Nothin’ At All” and “Man’s Job,” and country laments “I Wish I Were Blind,” “With Every Wish” and “Cross My Heart,” any of which would have probably been hits had he pitched them to the big country stars of the era like Garth Brooks, Alan Jackson or George Strait. The album closed with the traditional folk song “Pony Boy”—sounding totally out of place—which pointed at the direction Springsteen would go in in the latter half of the decade. But some of the songs—”Soul Driver,” “Real World” and “Real Man”—seemed dangerously like filler.
Lucky Town was a tighter album, with just ten songs (compared to Human Touch‘s fourteen). It had a more stripped down and less self-conscious feel: here, he played nearly all the instruments, save drums; for that, he called Gary Mallaber, formerly of the Steve Miller Band (and who had played for Van Morrison, among others). The songs seemed a bit more personal: “Better Days” was another “happy” song, probably inspired by his relationship with Scialfa (which began before he divorced his first wife Julianne Phillips). “Souls of the Departed” was influenced by the violence in Compton, not too far from his new mansion: “Tonight as I tuck my own son in bed/All I can think of is what if it would’ve been him instead/I want to build me a wall so high nothing can burn it down/Right here on my own piece of dirty ground.” The song raged in a way that was reminiscent of “Born in the U.S.A.,” but fans may not have been ready to hear Bruce sing literal “dad-rock.” Again, he was being honest to where he was in his life; what parent wouldn’t feel the same way?
“Local Hero” poked fun at his own legend (even more than he did in 1987’s “Ain’t Got You”). The song, which details him going into a store in his hometown; upon seeing a black velvet painting of himself, he asks the salesgirl “Who was that man between the Doberman and Bruce Lee?” Her reply? “Just a local hero.” It was maybe closer of a metaphor than Bruce’s fans — and probably his management and record label — would like. The salesgirl doesn’t seem to know much about the guy in the picture, and she doesn’t recognize who she’s speaking to. In the ’80s, when Springsteen was one of the biggest pop stars in the world along with Michael Jackson, Madonna, and Prince, it’s hard to imagine that many people wouldn’t have recognized him. But the occasional anonymity was part of the life that Springsteen seemed to want: in “My Beautiful Reward,” the ballad that closes the album, he sang about moving on from his past to a more content and mature future. Again, this might have been a country hit if sung by a guy in a cowboy hat.
Lucky Town contained the one bonafide classic from this era: the ballad “If I Should Fall Behind.” The song was one of the centerpieces and highlights of every show on the E Street Band’s 1999-2000 reunion tour and featured Springsteen sharing lead vocals with bandmates Steven Van Zandt, Clarence Clemons, Patti Scialfa and Nils Lofgren. There was something poetic to that: a song from one of his solo albums became an anthem for their reunion.
So, where do Human Touch and Lucky Town stand in the context of the Springsteen catalog? Well, they don’t have the gravitas of the eight preceding albums. But perhaps it’s more useful to look at them as collections that include good songs, rather than a major artistic statement (Springsteen would return to that with albums like 2002’s The Rising and 2007’s Magic). And one of the thrills of his shows are the rarities and outtakes that he throws into his sets (as the Blue Oyster Cult might say, sometimes it’s “time to play b-sides”). Looked at through that lens, Human Touch and Lucky Town are two more sources of some great—and maybe underappreciated—Springsteen songs. Some of them even improve with age. Like adulthood, some things take time to get used to.