Picks and Pans Review: Lucky Town
Don't expect the thunderclap of 1984's Born in the U.S.A. or the more intimate grandeur of 1987's Tunnel of Love. These two new records are, for the most part, more muted—the seasoned sound of a man who has changed some diapers.
The somber homogeneity of the two discs doesn't make for an imposing first impression. But the impact of the 24 compositions becomes more profound with repeated plays. The thing about Springsteen's songs is that they are so deeply rooted in mood and character: Listen, for instance, to the way Lucky Town's "Book of Dreams" evokes the thoughts and hopes of a man on his wedding day.
Human Touch, recorded mostly in 1990, is the more clangorous and electric collection. Springsteen employs a traditional band (E-Streeter Roy Bittan on keyboards, drummer Jeff Porcaro, bass player Randy Jackson and several special guests) to ignite a number of his patented backbeat bonfires—"Roll of the Dice," "All or Nothin' at All" and "Gloria's Eyes."
The brash "Real Man," with Ian McLagen on piano and David Sancious on organ, sounds like Mitch Ryder meets Elton John. There are some departures here too, for instance the lullaby-like "Pony Boy" and the fable-like "With Every Wish," which with Mark Isham's muted trumpet and Kurt Wortman's African dumbeck drums sounds unlike anything Bruce has recorded before.
Human Touch is likely to get more radio play because it fits the old American Bandstand criteria: good beat and you can dance to it. But Bruce's big heart just doesn't seem to be in the rockers anymore. That's why Lucky Town, recorded mostly last year, though far quieter, is the more passionate album.
Springsteen essentially has three voices: the smooth croon, the raspy shout and the faux hillbilly twang. On the acoustic-flavored and often solo Lucky Town, the country voice prevails, from the Dust Bowl dirge of "Souls of the Departed" to the misty swamp tango of "The Big Muddy."
What both records confirm is that Springsteen is the most incurably romantic pop composer since Barry Manilow. Consider the opening stanza from Human Touch's "I Wish I Were Blind": "I love to see the cottonwood blossom/ In the early spring/ I love to see the message of love/ That the bluebird brings/ But when I see you walkin' with him/ Down along the strand/ I wish I were blind/ When I see you with your man." OK, a gritty, fatalistic Barry Manilow.
If budget or taste discourage a double dip, here's a simple tip: If you want to hear Bruce shout down the Devil, pick up Human Touch; if you want to hear him send up his prayers, head for Lucky Town.
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