Between the release of Tunnel of Love in October 1987 and the release of Human Touch in March of 1992, Bruce Springsteen did the following:
• Toured with E Street Band in 1988
• Separated from his wife
• Took part in the Amnesty International tour in the fall of 1988
• Had his divorce finalized in 1989
• Turned 40
• Disbanded the E Street Band providing them all with (rumored) seven-figure severance checks.
• Got remarried
• Became the father of two children
To say the Bruce Springsteen that reappeared in early 1992 was vastly different would be an understatement. He had gone through an immense amount of inner change, but not before he did some searching on his own. Largely written and recorded before the birth of his first child and his impending marriage to Patti Scalfia, Human Touch struggles finding consistency. For the first time in his career, he released a record that didn't show evolution or an improvement of some kind from his previous one. Human Touch is often deemed Springsteen's weakest record…and it is, but I would be lying if I told you I wasn't deeply conflicted over it. I bought it on the day it came out in 1992 and played it to death. I was younger and wasn't as familiar with Springsteen's oeuvre as I am today and I let the album creep into my psyche more than I should have. To its credit, the album has some beautiful lyrics that could be considered among Springsteen's best. So what's the issue? Like his first two records, there is one major culprit that hinders all aspects of it; the production. While his first two albums may have been under produced, Human Touch suffers from the opposite effect, over-production. Each song has a glossy sheen that does not suit Springsteen well. At his best, Springsteen is a rock and roller, not a lite-fm favorite. My overall issue is that on top of the stunning (and at times soulful) lyrics, Springsteen has layered such anemic instrumentation that it makes many of the lyrics undecipherable. For an artist who went the entire 1980's without making a dated record, it was surprising to see him embrace such a bright and sunny production that was better suited for forgettable R&B stars. The studio musicians who played on the record, including Toto drummer Jeff Porcaro and America Idol judge Randy Jackson on bass, are proficient in their talents but lack the shared history of the E Street Band. Every artist deserves the right to experiment, test their limits and push their boundaries, however, one listen to Human Touch and it's apparent that his dismissal of the E Street Band was premature. This album would have significantly improved with their input and drive. Hell, Steve Van Zandt's harmony vocals could have elevated some of the more dreadful tunes to not just listenable tracks but potentially classic ones as well.
The fourteen songs that encompass Human Touch can be grouped into three categories; decadent, semi-delightful and downright dreadful. Sadly the decadent are few and far between and the dreadful are plentiful. Let's start from the bottom and work our way up. One of the reasons Human Touch is scorned is because of the Christic Institute shows from November 1990. Over two nights, Springsteen performed his first solo shows since the early 1970's and besides revisiting many long lost classics, he debuted a half dozen new songs. Three of these songs wound up on Human Touch. Sadly the restrained charm they exhibited in concert was absent from the studio recordings. The ironically titled "Soul Driver" is missing the two elements mentioned in the title; soul and drive. "57 Channels" became a derided song in Springsteen's cannon for not just including it on Human Touch, but making it a single, making a video, making a slew of remixes for the song, performing it nightly in concert and lastly, the biggest sin- reworking it in such a dramatic and underwhelming way from its Christic performance. A fun tongue-in-cheek song became downright dreadful in any incarnation (especially the Saturday Night Live performance, a near low point in his career). "Real World" sums up everything that is wrong with Human Touch as a whole. From a lyrical and emotive standpoint, "Real World" is tough to top and may be among Springsteen's most vibrant and affecting hymns. Debuted in a rare Springsteen performance at the piano, it may be one of the ten greatest performances in Springsteen's entire career. When bootlegs leaked of the show, everyone divulged them and was excited at the prospects of the new material. When hearing "Real World" as done on Human Touch, the majority of the world sat there in silence thinking to themselves "What the hell was that?". Springsteen does deliver a forceful vocal, but the arrangement is all wrong. With a chiming bell and stationary delivery, the song is largely dead on arrival. This song was recorded before the Christic performance and considering the buzz surrounding the show, one has to wonder why Springsteen didn't think of reworking the song after the fact. If there was one song in Springsteen's entire catalog that deserves to be re-recorded, "Real World" is it.
A number of songs on the album had potential, but never found their footing. "All or Nothing At All" has a plowing kick, but is ultimately a throwaway. "The Long Goodbye" is implosive rather than explosive while "Cross My Heart" has an unemotional vocal delivery and uninspired backing band don't have much to add, thus never unlocking the song's potential. "Gloria's Eyes" would have potentially been devastating with the E Street Band, but with this backing band, it proves to be a heart-thumping rocker that is largely forgettable. "Man's Job" I find to be more charming than most people give it credit for, but when compared to his previous work, it doesn't hold up and even worse, it fails to inspire. "Real Man" is often deemed his weakest song and while it's not his finest moment, the song is maligned more for its production than its lyrical content.
Despite numerous cold performances and a lack of imagination in the production department, there are some hidden gems amidst the chaos. "With Every Wish" is a treasure featuring a tasteful arrangement that fits the song like a glove. The title says it all, but this is one of the songs that are up to Tunnel of Love levels with an evocative trumpet in the background. One of the first songs recorded for the album in late 1989 or early 1990. The songs intuitive lyrics wouldn't be out of place on any Springsteen record. Its atmosphere is unique yet is definitely Springsteen. Shuttling between wishes, dreams and severe realities the song is easily one of the best from this period. "Roll of the Dice" is one of the album's more muscular tunes that would have thrived from an E Street treatment. Regardless, it has a piano hook that's downright exhilarating. Co-written by Roy Bittan, the song echoes to previous triumphs, but is still refreshing featuring a band hell-bent on the road to redemption. "I Wish I Were Blind" wouldn't have been out of place on Tunnel of Love. The narrator is well aware of the treasures of the world, but he's conflicted by the pain he experiences from not having the woman who holds his heart. He's aware of the contradictions life provides between the light and the darkness. Springsteen's guitar solo evokes the narrator's conflict of the extremes of love. This is one of the few instances on Human Touch where the music soared and took the song to confounding heights. It's a wrenching yet lyrically beautiful tale and one of Springsteen's best ever. The title-track, "Human Touch", is among his best singles and one that deserves more credit than it gets. What begins as a spare ballad, with lyrics begging one to take a chance on love, it spirals into an unbecoming infusion of rage. Springsteen's supercharged howls and majestic guitar work reach epic territories on the six-and-a-half minute song. Springsteen's uncanny ability to transmute divine inner light onto a world that often is surrounded by shadows. Just as you begin to think the song has reached its climax and it's about to fade out, an inevitable avalanche of emotions are projected through his guitar as it releases contained emotions in a wailing crescendo. If I have anything to say about the "Human Touch" it's that it should be performed with more regularity.
I know I'm being a bit tough on this record, but the reality is that while the songs are not top tier, they could have been so much more. On has to cut Bruce Springsteen some slack, as he was going through immense changes in his personal life over a very short period of time. While the characters who inhibit these fourteen songs are coming to terms with their repressed emotions, that's not enough to save this record. If there was ever an album in Springsteen's cannon I'd love to see him revisit and re-record, it would be Human Touch. The live versions from his 1992/1993 tour were rather illuminating and in just about every instance, the songs found new life once the shackles of the bitter sounding studio production were unlocked. I have only seen the E Street Band perform a few of these songs in concert since 1999 and in almost every case, the performance has been nothing short of devastating. I'd kill to see the whole album given the E Street treatment as I believe they would have the power and ability to elevate songs like "The Long Goodbye" and "Real World" in a way no other group of musicians on the planet could. The biggest irony of Human Touch is that when Springsteen dismissed the E Street Band in 1989, it was to venture a new path that would be separate from his work with them. When one listens to Human Touch you hear shades of R&B and soul music, but he largely stuck to a sound that was familiar to him, only with musicians who lacked a history with Springsteen. The E Street Band without question would have worked wonders with this material and at the very minimum elevated the album to a solid "B"/Three-star status. Despite all its faults, I still hold a place in my heart for Human Touch as it was the first piece of work that really pushed me to delve deeper into his entire catalog. I had a few Springsteen records, but this record began my appreciation for his larger body of work. For me, Human Touch is much like your first girlfriend. She may not have been as pretty as future ones, but because she was the first, you'll never forget her, no matter how ugly she appears to be in retrospect.
Anthony Kuzminski is a Chicago based writer and Special Features Editor for the antiMusic Network and his daily writings can be read at The Screen Door and can be contacted at thescreendoor AT gmail DOT com.
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Bruce Springsteen Month: Human Touch