Dusting ‘Em Off is a rotating, free-form feature that revisits a classic album, film, or moment in pop-culture history. This week, Dan Caffrey finds the perfect combination of Bruce Springsteen’s Human Touch and Lucky Town.
When Bruce Springsteen was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1999, he half-jokingly thanked his father for their complex and often contentious relationship over the years.
“What would I conceivably have written about without him?” he chuckled. “I mean, you can imagine that if everything had gone great between us, we would have had disaster. I would have written just happy songs—and I tried [that] in the early ’90s and it didn’t work.”
He’s of course referring to his 1992 duology of albums, Human Touch and Lucky Town. In a move that predated artists as diverse as Nelly and Bright Eyes, Springsteen released them both on the same day (March 31st), with recording sessions taking place sporadically between September 1989 and January 1992. And true to his assessment seven years later in 1999, they weren’t exactly grand slams.
Although both records were certified Platinum and did especially well overseas, reviews were lukewarm at best (a first for any full-length Springsteen album). More importantly, they aren’t regarded with the save reverence today as, well, pretty much everything else by The Boss. Even the unofficial Nebraska sequel, The Ghost of Tom Joad (the only other Springsteen studio album released in the ’90s), has achieved a latter-day, dark-horse kind of respect, thanks in no small part to Jason Isbell.
Even if he was correct in describing fan and critical reaction to Human Touch and Lucky Town, Springsteen may have been wrong about one thing in his Rock and Roll Hall of Fame speech: the idea that people hated the albums because they were “happy.” Granted, the generally more content and optimistic tone was somewhat new to him at the time, as was his recent lifestyle change. Following a highly publicized divorce with actress Julianne Phillips — and Tunnel of Love, the classic companion album that predated their separation — he broke up The E Street Band, got married to backing singer Patti Scialfa, moved from his native New Jersey to Los Angeles, and became a father.
And good for him. I mean it! Call me a sap or an optimist, but I’ve never believed that an artist has to be miserable or even dealing with conflict to crank out good music. Sure, pain can and often does produce a masterpiece. But true love and happiness have plenty of complexities themselves, and the best artists know how to make those things interesting. On Human Touch and Lucky Town, Springsteen did in fact mine the joys of being a (relatively) newlywed for more complicated subject matter: the change in one’s sex life, the intimidating challenge of commitment, the fear that comes with being a parent.
The problem was that he was interested in plenty of other unrelated subject matter, too. “Big Muddy” is a twangy military yarn inspired by Pete Seeger, “Pony Boy” is a traditional lullaby tinged with Western imagery, and “57 Channels (And Nothin’ On)” immediately dates itself by critiquing the then-novel glut of viewing options offered by cable television. So the main problem with Human Touch and Lucky Town wasn’t that they were albums about marriage, fatherhood, and starting over — it’s that they weren’t consistent enough with those themes.
When Dean of American Rock Critics Robert Christgau reviewed both works with nothing more than a deadpan smiley face for Lucky Town and the phrase “Windbag in love” for Human Touch, it’s the first word that’s most important. With one interesting theme spread across two albums, then padded out with unrelated songs, Human Touch and Lucky Town are, indeed, long-winded. It would be a different story if the whole point of the albums was diversity, but this was more like a good television show that keeps detouring into needless subplots, just barely hanging onto the central narrative. In other words, Human Touch/Lucky Town is the Springsteen equivalent to Season 2 of Friday Night Lights.
But to dismiss them entirely would be to miss out on a great lost Bruce Springsteen album. So on this, the 25th anniversary of both releases, we’re redeeming Human Touch and Lucky Town. There may not be enough good material for two classic albums, but there’s certainly enough for one and, as you’ll see, a bonus EP. Before we get into the track listing, though, a few things:
— In keeping with rejiggered Springsteen projects such as The Promise: The Darkness On the Edge of Town Story and The Ties That Bind‘s single-disc version of The River, we thought it was fair to pull from all the songs recorded during the Human Touch/Lucky Town sessions, not just the ones that made the final cut. As such, you’ll see a handful of selections from the Tracks box set of outtakes.
— We treated this new album as a proper sequel to 1987’s Tunnel of Love. In our minds, this is a record that examines a successful marriage rather than a failing one, albeit with a whole new set of challenges. In keeping with the Tunnel of Love sonic palette, we tried to only pick songs that were unified in the moodiness of the guitar work and synth tones. Keyboards were a dangerous game in the ’80s and early ’90s, and we believe their use in all the songs here convey introspection rather than cheesiness. A good gut check for a synth line was to see if it would fit in on a recent Ryan Adams or War On Drugs song.
— On the same note, many songs were omitted not because of their lyrics, but their production. For instance, “Real Man” focuses on a burgeoning relationship that, thematically, is very much in line with the rest of the single album we’ve created here. But it’s torpedoed by keyboards and overenthusiastic backing vocals that wouldn’t be out of place in a used-car lot commercial circa 1992. An unfortunate sign of the times.
— Some of the best songs didn’t make it simply because they don’t fit. With its exuberant piano, glockenspiel, and revved up guitar, “Roll of the Dice” sounds too much like ’70s Springsteen to be included on a more inward affair about marriage. This isn’t about picking the best songs from the Human Touch/Lucky Town sessions. It’s about picking the ones that would make the most sense together on a single album.
— We also took story into consideration. As you’ll see in just a little bit, the songs form a loose arc that reflects Springsteen’s real life at the time. He gets out of a relationship that’s not working, vows to get to a more stable place, then finds it, along with all the new obstacles presented by happiness.
— There’s a surprising number of country-flavored (or at least roadhouse-flavored) songs peppered throughout the Human Touch/Lucky Town sessions. There may not be enough for an entire LP, but there are definitely enough for a five-song EP. We’ve included that here as well. Titled Knee-Deep In the Big Muddy, it comes with our made-up deluxe DualDisc version of the longer album (available exclusively at Target).
— In honor of the Dean, we’re titling this new single-disc album Windbag In Love.
Speaking of which, we’re getting a little long-winded ourselves, no? That’s enough preamble. Here are the track listings, followed by a breakdown of why we included each song on Windbag In Love.
Winbag in Love Tracklist:
01. Better Days (originally from Lucky Town)
02. Over the Rise (originally from Tracks)
03. The Long Goodbye” (originally from Human Touch)
04. Sad Eyes” (originally from Tracks)
05. Lucky Town” (originally from Lucky Town)
06. Living Proof” (originally from Lucky Town)
07. Loose Change” (originally from Tracks)
08. If I Should Fall Behind” (originally from Lucky Town)
09. Human Touch” (originally from Human Touch)
Hidden Track: “Gave It a Name” (originally from Tracks)
Runtime: 40 minutes, plus 30 or so seconds of silence
Knee-Deep in the Big Muddy EP Tracklist:
01. Leavin’ Train (originally from Tracks)
02. Big Muddy (originally from Lucky Town)
03. All or Nothin’ at All (originally from Human Touch)
04. Souls of the Departed (originally from Lucky Town)
05. Pony Boy (originally from Human Touch)
Runtime: 19 minutes
WINDBAG IN LOVE
01. “Better Days”
Seeing as it describes Springsteen’s mental state when he and Patti Scialfa got engaged, “Better Days” makes the perfect introduction to an album about happiness and self-improvement. It also has just enough rock muscle to draw in any fans who may have gotten turned off by the more electronic textures of Tunnel of Love. This isn’t as much a part of Windbag In Love‘s proper narrative as it is a summation of its Big Idea.
02. “Over the Rise”
After the opener, the album goes back in time to the narrator’s previous breakup. Appropriately, “Over the Rise” is the most downtrodden song on Windbag In Love, driven by little more than muffled bass as a gypsy tells a man that his partner — and thus the love between them — has vanished.
03. “The Long Goodbye”
The breakup gets drawn out, as breakups so often do. Unlike “Over the Rise”, The Boss finds himself locked into bar-rock mode, ultimately toasting rather than lamenting the end of something not so good. Placing “The Long Goodbye” as the third track of the record prevents Side One from becoming too much of a downer. Since the first half of the album deals primarily with heartbreak, that seems essential.
04. “Sad Eyes”
Like Sting in “Every Breath You Take”, the narrator reaches his lowest point here, continuously watching his ex from afar after the breakup. Musically, “Sad Eyes” moves from the tinny synths of the verse to the warmer guitar chords of the chorus, forming a mood swing that Springsteen sounds anxious to end. And on the next song, he does.
05. “Lucky Town”
On Side One of Windbag In Love, “Better Days” and “Lucky Town” form bookends about reaching a happier place in one’s life. If the former is the satisfaction of having reached a higher plane of romantic and domestic bliss, the latter is the narrator longing for that very thing. Rollicking, but in a darker key, “Lucky Town” finds him further from his middle-aged dreams of contentment, yet actively beginning to pursue them.
06. “Living Proof”
Explicitly about the birth of Springsteen’s oldest son, Evan, “Living Proof” is an essential inclusion because it examines how the event affects the entire family dynamic. Springsteen takes on the challenge with gusto, recognizing that having to care for another life requires faith, commitment, and a lack of selfishness — all things that the narrator acknowledges he’s struggled with in the past. As the opening song of Side Two, it makes sense that the song is about starting an entirely new chapter in life.
07. “Loose Change”
Of course, no family is perfect, and “Loose Change” creeps up as track seven to remind the narrator of the challenges of the pledge he just made in the previous song. Lyrically, it’s somewhat open-ended. Is the woman in the song a one-night affair? Does this mean the protagonist is stepping out on his wife and has to deal with the fallout from that? Or is it something less traitorous? Perhaps the woman is his wife and he’s longing for their more carefree days. Perhaps he feels burdened by the promises he’s made, unsure of whether or not he can keep them. It could be any of these things. Whatever the case, he’s unsettled as he waits at a traffic light at the end of the song, not moving as the light flashes from red to green. As reflected by a synth that’s a ghost of “I’m On Fire”, he feels uneasy and unable to head home for the time being.
08. “If I Should Fall Behind”
But go home he does, reaffirming his vows in what’s arguably the album’s most touching song. Somewhat of a mid-tempo ballad, “If I Should Fall Behind” sees both husband and wife promising to pick the other one up whenever they falter. And that’s just as much a part of marriage as all the lovey-dovey shit (though that’s important, too). Tellingly, E Street guitarist Nils Lofgren has always been baffled at why this song was never a huge hit for The Boss, so much that he often covers it in his own live performances.
09. “Human Touch”
What was originally the opening song of Human Touch becomes the closing (proper) track of Windbag In Love. In a way, it has a more sober attitude than “Better Days”. It’s a song that recognizes, yes, happiness is possible, but also requires a lot of hard work and accepting each other’s flaws. If you can do both of those things, it becomes much easier to hold your partner at the end of a long day.
Hidden Track: “Gave It a Name”
There’s something to be said for ending a big, emotionally heavy album with a minimalist, almost cast-off hidden track. Springsteen did it himself with “The Way” on The Promise. Here, “Gave It a Name” isn’t just about a relationship, but it is about original sin — a malleable term that affects all relationships, regardless of one’s religious beliefs. This allows the song to function as an epilogue, a quietly Biblical moment that comments on the bigger forces within ourselves that often make romantic interaction so difficult. And hey, if getting that literary on a rock album ain’t your thing, “Gave It a Name” still deserves inclusion, if only for its pitch-perfect use in the opening scene of HBO’s Show Me a Hero.