‘After Born in the USA I’d had enough of the big time for a while and looked forward to something less,’ remarks Bruce Springsteen in his autobiography, Born to Run. That ‘something less’ turned out to be Tunnel of Love, a downbeat album mostly recorded in his home studio Thrill Hill East from January to May in 1987. It’s certainly a quieter affair than the frequently raucous Born in the USA, his multiplatinum number one smash hit, but then Tunnel of Love also reached number one on the Billboard Hot 100, and it’s frequently acclaimed as one of The Boss’s greatest albums. So it’s hardly ‘something less’ in terms of either commercial success or artistic quality.
It starts off with an acoustic guitar strumming a Bo Diddley beat as Springsteen half-boasts, half-complains on “Ain’t Got You”: ‘I got a hundred pretty women knockin’ down my door/And folks wanna kiss me I ain’t even seen before’. It’s the life of a mega-celebrity, one that many would envy… but he ain’t got you. The eternal seeker, the man who was born to run, still ain’t found what he’s looking for, and the rest of the album is soaked in that same dissatisfaction.
It’s also soaked in synthesisers. The acoustic “Ain’t Got You” turns out to be a bit of an outlier and hence a misleading opener. The tone from there on turns much chillier, at least musically, awash in synths and drum machines. Whereas the synths on Born in the USA had brought a majestic irony to songs such as the title track and “Glory Days”, and also emphasised the massive pop hooks that were so infectious to begin with, on Tunnel of Love they fill in for most of the E Street Band, who are absent, and hence create an atmosphere of grim alienation. You can hear the void behind them, the lack of sax solos. You can feel the emptiness, bitterness, and depression in their plastic musicality.
I’m not imagining things. On the chapter about this album from his autobiography (a must-read), Springsteen wrote: ‘Filled with inner turmoil, I wrote to make sense of my feelings… The highway had revealed its secrets and as compelling as they were, I found its freedom and open spaces could become as overpoweringly claustrophobic as my most clichéd ideas of domesticity. All those roads, after all those years, when they converged, met down the end of the same dead-end street.’
He’s talking about the characters in his songs, but he’s also talking about himself. At this point in his life, Springsteen had been married for two years to Julianne Phillips, a model and actress, however he felt stifled and unhappy, and they were clearly ill-suited. Just as his characters had reached a dead-end in their lives, so Springsteen had also in his marriage, and he was well aware of it. The only way was out: the couple separated in 1988.
Tunnel of Love can then be seen as a whimper of despondency at the sunset of their relationship, and as such, like Blood on the Tracks, it can feel a little voyeuristic. On “Two Faces” Springsteen hopes that ‘Our love will make that other man go away’, but his voice shows little hope that that outcome is possible. ‘Nobody knows, honey, where love goes/But when it goes it’s gone’ he despairs on “When You’re Alone”. These lines might be uttered by fictional characters in each song, but they’re still clearly indicative of the author’s mental state at the time.
The two best songs on the album are the title track and “Brilliant Disguise”, which go beyond the merely personal to embellish really profound truths about relationships, and are made all the more absorbing by two of the subtlest performances of Springsteen’s career. “Tunnel of Love” follows a couple into a fairground funhouse, where a hall of mirrors shows them the nightmarish reality of their relationship. It’s really a threesome, the narrator realises: ‘You, me, and all that stuff we’re so scared of’. When you listen several times, the way Springsteen hurtles over the cluster of syllables that is ‘Cuddle up angel, cuddle up my little dove’ starts to sound desperate, and is an early sign of their souring romance. Overall, it’s a remarkable portrait of how entering a relationship might just expose parts of yourself that you never wanted to see, much like a hall of mirrors.
“Brilliant Disguise” doubles in on the mistrust that love affairs can engender: ‘Is that you baby/Or just a brilliant disguise?’ Everyone performs in all aspects of their lives, not just relationships, but it’s toxic to imagine that someone you love might be acting. Because then what does that mean – do they truly love you? How can you ever know for sure? The way Springsteen drags out ‘disgui-i-i-i-i-i-i-i-i-se’ on the chorus puts stress on the fact that he’s performing as well, in the song, for you the audience. He’s putting on a show; his baby’s putting on a show; everybody’s putting on a show, in love and music. It’s another hall of mirrors.
Yet despite the inevitable cynicism that comes from life’s disappointments and his own failing marriage, Springsteen’s always managed to keep the Olympic torch of his romanticism burning, and that’s one of the many reasons why people love him. So Tunnel of Love is not just a depressing experience, it’s a lot more complex than that. It feels alive and alert to the possibilities of love, even whilst acknowledging that some relationships are doomed to failure.
So it’s perhaps no coincidence that, beneath some of the bleakest tracks here, there’s a backup singer called Patti Scialfa, who manages to ease some of the subtle pain in his vocals. Springsteen would start dating Scialfa during the Tunnel of Love tour, they’d marry in 1991, and in fact they remain married to this day. They’re still on their journey through the tunnel of love.
This biographical drama adds depth to Tunnel of Love and helps to explain how, despite the overall bleak tone, it never becomes an adolescent self-pity party. It’s a sign that Springsteen really does believe that love’s not just a brilliant disguise, but also a brilliant way of life.