Tunnel of Love, the first studio album since Bruce Springsteen’s multi-platinum Born in the U.S.A., marked a shift in tone and content for the New Jersey rocker. Written two years after his marriage to model-actress Julianne Phillips (to whom he dedicated it), the LP spoke openly about relationships. At the time, many critics noted its consistent theme of the cost of commitment, an observation reinforced when the singer-songwriter split with Phillips after the tour supporting this cycle of what the artist called his “men and women songs.”
At first, Tunnel of Love could have been read by some Springsteen fans as part of the ebb and flow of his career from anthemic to stripped-down songs. The former tended to lend themselves to arenas and outsized expectations that made him recoil and reassess his direction.
Darkness on the Edge of Town featured prominently featured harder-edged guitar work than predecessor Born to Run and dispensed with the Spectorian “wall of sound” he had worked tireless hours to achieve. (At the same time, he had informed his record company, Columbia, to tone down the hype that had colored reaction to the earlier record.) With the downbeat Nebraska (1982), he practically guaranteed that there would be no Top Five singles on the order of “Hungry Heart” from The River (1980). The three singles from Tunnel of Love—the title tune, “Brilliant Disguise” and “One Step Up”—were hardly as radio-friendly as the seven singles of Born in the U.S.A. (1984).
The two million units of Tunnel of Love shipped by Columbia testified to the residual impact of Born in the U.S.A., but the prospects of repeating that earlier sales performance were dim: The Boss was challenging his audience to follow him on his journey, one that even a cursory playing of Tunnel revealed as uncharted terrain. Most love songs reflect the exhilaration involved with that emotion, and breakup or torch songs probably nearly match upbeat love tunes in number. But far fewer songs express the self-doubt, even terror, evoked by the word “forever” when spoken in a relationship.
In retrospect, the LP can also be seen as a transition point in his commitment to another family: Springsteen’s “band of brothers,” the E Street Band. His questioning of his marriage paralleled his questioning of whether the backup musicians with whom he had played, in some cases, 17 years could fulfill his musical ambitions. The sounds he heard in his head were not that much more extensive than those reproduced on his acoustic Nebraska five years earlier. He recorded most of the parts himself at home, with the help of drum machines and synthesizers.
Never a wildly eclectic musician such as Paul Simon, Billy Joel or Elvis Costello, Springsteen might have felt a greater necessity at this point in his career in trying out new tones, instruments and moods. Indeed, the “Johanna’s Visions” blogger notes, "You’ll be baffled by the number of country artists who took a crack at ‘Tougher than the Rest.’” (From what I can put together, these include the following: Emmylou Harris, Travis Tritt, and Chris LeDoux—though I’m surprised it wasn’t done by Johnny Cash, who took a crack at "Johnny 99" from Nebraska.) The movement toward a non-E Street sound that began with Tunnel of Love gathered momentum in 1988, on the Amnesty International tour, as Springsteen saw the creative freedom enjoyed by Sting in his post-Police life.
That set the stage for what Rolling Stone has numbered among “The 25 Boldest Career Moves in Rock History”: i.e., Springsteen's calls to each of his musicians in 1989, informing them that he was breaking up the band. He would not record any songs with them (save for pianist Roy Bittan) until his Greatest Hits in 1995, tour with them again until 1999, or produce a full CD of new studio material until The Rising in 2002.
Springsteen’s shifting lyrical and musical direction can be seen through the prism of three of his closest associates in the E Street Band. Charismatic saxophonist Clarence Clemons, his longtime concert foil and, more recently, best man at his wedding to Phillips, found that his instrument had become a disposable part of the new album. In fact, his only contribution was a vocal on “When You’re Alone.” For longtime listeners, the Big Man had morphed into the Invisible Man.
Clemons did not vent his frustration—certainly publicly—at the time. One band member who did speak out was “Miami Steve” Van Zandt, Springsteen’s friend from his youth, who reinforced his artistic/social conscience. Upon hearing “Ain’t Got You,” an Elvis-style vocal with a Bo Diddley backbeat, Van Zandt made known how little use he had for it in unmistakable terms. As related in David Remnick’s profile of Springsteen in the July 30, 2012 issue of The New Yorker, the Boss’s friend got his back up over the point of view of the narrator, a multimillionaire who moaned about the loss of his lover, even though he had “the fortunes of heaven” and a “house full of Rembrandt and priceless art.” The result, in Van Zandt's words, was “one of the biggest fights of our lives”:
“I’m, like, ‘What the ---- is this?’ And he’s, like, ‘Well, what do you mean, it’s the truth. It’s just who I am, it’s my life.’ And I’m, like, ‘This is bullshit. People don’t need you talking about your life. Nobody gives a shit about your life. They need you for their lives. That’s your thing. Giving some logic and reason and sympathy and passion to this cold, fragmented, confusing world—that’s your gift. Explaining their lives to them. Their lives, not yours.’ And we fought and fought and fought and fought.” Despite the fact that each suggested that the other should perform an anatomical impossibility, “I think something in what I said probably resonated,” Van Zandt concluded. (Or maybe not: the song not only was included in the LP, but led off Side 1.)
The one band member with an indisputably larger role than before was backup singer Patti Scialfa, for reasons both professional and personal. When she signed on for the Born in the U.S.A. tour, she had fundamentally altered the all-guy emotional dynamics of the band. Tunnel of Love represented her first appearance on a Springsteen studio album, where her vocals are featured most prominently on the title song. Before long, her involvement in his life would take a much different turn.
For all Springsteen’s protests, at the time and later, that he was speaking in the voices of characters rather than himself on Tunnel of Love, it seems obvious now that the album flashed warning signals of his emotional turmoil. Consider, for instance, these lyrics from “One Step Up”:
There's a girl across the bar
I get the message she's sendin'
Mmm she ain't lookin' to married
And me well honey I'm pretending.
In the subsequent tour to promote the album, the onstage chemistry between Springsteen and Scialfa became impossible to ignore. Many fans were not surprised by the paparazzi photos that caught the two in an intimate moment on the balcony of an Italian hotel.
“God have mercy on the man/Who doubts what he’s sure of,” Springsteen sings on “Brilliant Disguise.” Tunnel of Love is an attempt to confront his uncertainties as musician and husband. I would not rate it at the top of his discography, but its honesty—and frequent raw emotional power—makes it hard to eradicate from the mind.