Springsteen's 'lonely valentine' turns 35: In praise of 'Tunnel of Love'
After the bombast of "Born in the USA," Bruce Springsteen's "Tunnel of Love" was nothing if not a departure. What it also was, it turns out, was one of the great relationship albums ever, and among Bruce's most impressive works. This essay, from my book "Glory Days: Springsteen's Greatest Albums," explains why.
TUNNEL OF LOVE
Released: October 9, 1987
Highest Chart Position: US 1 / UK 1
1. Ain’t Got You
2. Tougher Than the Rest
3. All That Heaven Will Allow
4. Spare Parts
5. Cautious Man
6. Walk Like a Man
7. Tunnel of Love
8. Two Faces
9. Brilliant Disguise
10. One Step Up
11. When You’re Alone
12. Valentine’s Day
No matter what you think about Tunnel of Love, one thing’s easy to agree upon: It’s probably not the type of album you’d want to hear from the guy whom you just married a few years earlier. Yes, that would be awkward.
Subsequent accounts say Bruce Springsteen, then 37, and his first wife Julianne Phillips had actually already split by the time Tunnel of Love hit the streets in October of 1987, but that doesn’t make the album any less resonant: To this day it remains Springsteen’s most personal work and, in many ways, his most universal and trenchant. It’s also kind of a bummer, but that’s OK too.
The album was Springsteen’s first to focus almost exclusively on relationships between men and women – and not the meet-me-on-the-beach, let’s-blow-this-town type of relationships of his early work. Tunnel of Love shines a light into the dark corners of commitment, the unspoken dangers of letting down your emotional guard, and the difficult and sometimes fruitless work that goes into being married.
From the moment the album opens with his hoarse, unaccompanied voice launching into a diatribe about having the “fortunes of heaven in diamonds and gold” on “Ain’t Got You,” it’s clear that we’re in a new type of autobiographical territory for Springsteen: Fresh off the superstar whirlwind of Born in the USA, it’s the first time he seems to be writing from the point of view of what we might now call the 1 percent. And the fact that the only thing the narrator “ain’t got” is a particular unattainable woman shows us where the album is headed: down the windy road of basic human connections that can somehow remain maddeningly elusive, well beyond the orbit of diamond watches and fancy foreign cars.
At least a few of the songs point to the value in at least trying to ford the rough river of romantic relationships. The steady, martial drumbeat that starts off “Tougher Than The Rest” evokes the singer’s steely commitment to succeeding where others before him have failed, and an acknowledgement that love is only truly attainable if you’re willing to endure a long, hard slog to reach it. And even “All That Heaven Will Allow” – the album’s brightest track, sung in a hopeful warble – acknowledges the constant presence of “Mister Trouble.”
But much more of Tunnel of Love is dedicated to the ways that love is complicated, trust is fleeting and truly knowing someone is heart-wrenchingly difficult – sometimes impossible. The title track equates relationships with a dim, twisted carnival funhouse, an analogy that’s brilliantly simple and exquisitely executed: “the lights go out and it’s just the three of us,” Springsteen sings, “you, me and all that stuff we’re so scared of.” The way he shares harmonies both with himself, in a anguished overdub, and with Patti Scialfa’s echoing yelps only accentuates the number of hidden specters floating just beneath any relationship’s surface.
“Brilliant Disguise” takes that concept even further, with yet another protagonist in danger of seeing everything slip away when “out go the lights” – including his own sense of self. “I wanna know if it’s you I don’t trust, ’cause I damn sure don’t trust myself,” he laments, painting a revealing picture of a relationship whose loving appearance is only the result of perpetual, exhausting efforts – from both parties – to keep the darkness submerged.
Even more stark is the plain-spoken “One Step Up,” almost matter-of-fact in the way it portrays a marriage dissolving before our eyes. Like in “Point Blank” – perhaps Springsteen’s direst relationship song up to that point – the dream of happier times that ends the song makes the current reality all the sadder.
The story song “Cautious Man,” meanwhile – somewhat of a head-scratcher at the time, with its lack of a chorus or even a discernable melody – is subtle but effective in the way it opens windows into the soul of a well-meaning but conflicted lover. Cinematic in its imagery, with Bill Horton’s tattooed knuckles cribbed from 1955’s chilling “Night of the Hunter,” the song feels autobiographical and universal at the same time. It captures perfectly the confusion within a man who doesn’t understand why he can’t dispel the “coldness … inside him,” despite all the reasons he has to be content.
Some of the tracks threaten to dip into the realm of despondency – the hero of “Two Faces” seems to know which side of his dual nature will win out in the end, despite all his efforts and promises, and “When You’re Alone” speaks ruthlessly to a love that’s “gone gone.” But typical of Springsteen, the album closes with a song that rolls together all the fear and darkness that came before it while managing to hold out hope, however fleeting, for love and redemption.
“Valentine’s Day” is Springsteen at his most poetically moving. The narrator, driving a dark highway like so many other Springsteen heroes, talks about dreaming of his own death and waking up with the understanding that his lover is all that stands between him and utter desolation. “It wasn’t the wind in the gray fields I felt rushing through my arms,” he sings. “No … baby it was you.”
He understands that while love may never be perfect, a “lonely valentine” is better than none at all. And it’s probably not insignificant that the singer is driving “up the highway” rather than down, possibly toward something better, more illuminating, and worth the trip.
Considered a quiet detour following the bombast of Born in the USA, I’d argue that Tunnel of Love has actually aged better than its more popular predecessor, even if it doesn’t necessarily sound like a “Springsteen album.” (Although it also did fine commercially in its own right, going triple platinum and spurring two top 10 singles.) The narrative thread that winds through most of his work is certainly there, especially in songs like the rough-hewn “Spare Parts,” about an abandoned mother who considers the unthinkable, and “Walk Like a Man,” a father-son story that could stand as the quiet third act to complete “Adam Raised a Cain” and “Independence Day.” Musically, though, the album’s a true departure.
Essentially a solo album, Tunnel of Love has a folk sensibility, although a melodic and accessible one. The predominantly acoustic approach, and the essential absence of the E Street Band – and their accompanying sax solos and piano arpeggios – in favor of subtle synthesizers and more gentle percussion was decidedly different for Springsteen: It started him down the path toward what author Marc Dolan, in Bruce Springsteen and the Promise of Rock and Roll, called a deliberate “winnowing down” of his audience, from its mammoth Born in the USA proportions to a more manageable number willing to follow him down more unexpected roads.
Regardless, in its single-mindedness of purpose and its mature sound and themes, there’s no denying that Tunnel of Love adds a tremendous depth and breadth to both Springsteen’s musical catalogue and his status as an artist. Even as it bums you out.