Double albums should not exist. The vast majority of them don’t contain enough good songs to justify their excessive length, and the ones that do still suffer from bloat and self-indulgence. As a service to bands both past and present, and with a nod to Stylus’ old Playing God column, we’re going to whittle those double albums down to size. This is the way it should have been.
Like Guns N’ Roses’ Use Your Illusion from the same era, Bruce Springsteen’s Human Touch and Lucky Town are two separate albums released on the same day – essentially double album record stores could charge twice for.
And also like Guns N’ Roses, Springsteen’s hubris and limits were exposed with the release of too much material.
Hardcore Springsteen fans were disappointed when the Boss parted ways with his beloved E Street Band following the Tunnel of Love tour in 1988, but were willing to grant Springsteen some slack as he searched for new musical directions.
Unfortunately, Human Touch and Lucky Town, his first albums released since the breakup, sounded like the same old Springsteen, only with inferior studio hacks backing him instead of the big personalities fans were used to.
If Springsteen had disbanded the E Streeters to work on The Ghost of Tom Joad, The Seeger Sessions, or the long-rumored hip hop-inspired album (for reals), it would have been an understandable decision. But to ditch Little Steven, Clarence Clemons and the rest to just play more bar-band rock with musicians-for-hire like Randy Jackson wasn’t only pointless – it felt like a betrayal of the E Street mythos fans whole-heartedly bought into.
Human Touch and Lucky Town represent the low point of Springsteen’s career: one of the few musically fallow periods of his life, and one in which he stopped trying to grow creatively. Any time an established artist releases the “Hey guys, I’m actually really happy now and finally at a good place in my life” album, it’s a bad sign, and this was no exception. Springsteen was delighting in the domestic family life, and the untold financial, critical and creative success of his ‘80s run. Which would have been fine if he didn’t feel the need to write about it.
So we’re left with two albums worth of songs about being in love, and having kids, and being content. Ugh. And the famously prolific Springsteen didn’t leave any gems off these finished products, judging by the outtakes collection Tracks. As we excise the detritus to come up with one album, we’re going to face a tough question: can we even come up with one good album’s worth of material? Is there hope for a “Lucky Touch” or a “Human Town”?
Let’s find out:
1) Better Days. The easiest song to relate to on either album, because although it’s about how happy Springsteen is, it comes from an honest and personal place. The lines “Now a life of leisure and a pirate’s treasure/Don’t make much for tragedy/But it’s a sad man my friend who’s livin’ in his own skin/And can’t stand the company” serve as our new album’s thesis. This is also the only song from these sessions that actually rocks.
2) Real World. Of the two releases, Human Touch is supposed to be Springsteen’s “soul” album. Real World is the only song on it that actually feels like soul music, and it’s one of the few songs from either album to hold up in a live set filled with a career’s worth of material.
3) Living Proof. A handful of songs about having kids dot these albums, and Living Proof is the only one to resonate.
4) With Every Wish. This tune establishes an anguish that the first three tracks lack. The darkness on the edge of town is still there – it’s just easier to forget when you’re inside your house with all the lights on.
5) My Beautiful Reward. A haunting hymn showcases Springsteen’s underrated penchant for balladry, and reinforces our newly focused theme of desire vs. suffering.
6) Human Touch. The video for Human Touch, the first single for the dual releases, encapsulates everything wrong with both albums. Springsteen’s in soft focus, staring into the camera intimately as he strikes “rocker” poses with his guitar. And there are some trolleys for no apparent reason. And it’s too bad, because this is a great song, a perfect centerpiece for our integrated album.
7) If I Should Fall Behind. Ironically, this song became a staple in setlists during the E Street Band Reunion Tour, becoming an anthem for the band’s newfound commitment to one another. On record, it’s just a pretty love song.
8) The Big Muddy. One of the few stylistic departures on either album, Big Muddy serves as a divider between the heartfelt ballads that comprise our album’s middle, and the lightweight rockers that will close it out.
9) Lucky Town. “House got too crowded/Clothes got too tight.” Now that sounds like our Springsteen. Lucky Town may be Bruce-by-numbers, but that’s good enough to make it one of the best songs on this collection.
10) Roll of the Dice. Sends us out on a fun, breezy note.
Hardest Cuts: None.
- Pony Boy
- 57 Channels (and Nothin’ On)
How would this new creation rank among Springsteen albums? Sadly, even after cutting the dead weight, not anywhere close to the top. Together, Human Touch and Lucky Town would have made a really strong EP, or this, a decent album. As a double album, it’s pretty close to a disaster.