Tougher Than The Rest: Bruce Springsteen’s Tunnel of Love at 35

Celebrating the ’80s Boss album that sounds most like 2022

Tunnel of Love Express Tour program (Image: eBay)

Giants get lonely, too. It’s a cliché now, but someone’s got to invent the cliché.

Because time is weird and no one can predict the exact cycles of trends, or for that matter, existing archetypes that have yet to peak, we now occupy a timeline where the most influential Springsteen albums are his least sociable.

The stark Nebraska paved the way for a superstar’s outsider music to influence the superstar-averse, from Sharon Van Etten to Phosphorescent to Bon Iver to the regrettable Sun Kil Moon. It fetishizes the cold loneliness of one being and their acoustic guitar and honing in on those feelings to invent the modern-day singer-songwriter whose “folk” qualities boil down to rawly emoted minimalism and a rocker-as-novelist literary veneer. The move may have been the most influential reinvention of the moden-day folksinger since Dylan.

There’s no denying Born to Run’s or Born in the U.S.A.’s commercial, critical or influential import, and plenty of noteworthy music from the last two decades has taken up the E Street mantle: The Hold Steady, Titus Andronicus, the Gaslight Anthem, Against Me!, Ted Leo, the Front Bottoms, Low Cut Connie and countless others in the Jerseypunk or accursed folk-punk continuum. But with the exception of major pop guru Jack Antonoff of Bleachers, these successors have mostly operated firmly within the rock radius. And Antonoff seems more like a Tunnel of Love guy.

Bruce Springsteen Tunnel of Love, Columbia Records 1987

Tunnel of Love, Springsteen’s second-best album, made the E Street Band sparse. He put a dimmer switch on the sparkle of late-80s synths. He opened up about the frustrations of his doomed first marriage. And he utilized bare-bones soft-rock production more redolent of “In the Air Tonight” to make the futuristic and inward Nebraska, one that was immensely more popular because his everyamerican fans can identify more with the drained batteries of love than like, serial killers. 

As with the title track of Born in the U.S.A., the theme song here, “Tougher Than the Rest” — one of Bruce’s greatest — is a feint. The beat crawls like an outtake from Psychocandy — mournful, gaseous synths hover like fog in a graveyard, and someone who sounds very, very alone proclaims his fortitude in the face of, well, nobody. He’s addressing someone in a blue dress looking for love, but he sings like he needs them more than they need him. It’s supposed to be the start of this breakup song cycle, but he sounds DOA. It’s gorgeous. The instruments sound more manufactured than played. It keynotes a work that’s every bit the “bedroom pop” album that Sign O’ The Times, another superstar’s inward-turned 1987 masterpiece, is.

 

VIDEO: Bruce Springsteen “Brilliant Disguise”

Of course, the secret to Tunnel of Love’s greatness is that it isn’t just sad and slow. Unlike the lugubrious singers who took the gray-black sonics of Nebraska to heart, this auteur is a pop musician coming off his biggest album ever. So we get the jumpy “Ain’t Got You” pepping things up with a false start, the Miranda Lambert-worthy barnburner “Spare Parts,” the misty not but bleak hit single “Tunnel of Love,” the laser-bright organ solo in “Two Faces” that cuts through the music like Dire Straits’ epochal “Walk of Life” riff. 

There are ballads, yes. Pretty, simplified ones like “All That Heaven Will Allow” and “When You’re Alone,” which could’ve subbed for “I’m on Fire” on U.S.A.. “I’m on Fire” is the dry run for Tunnel of Love, of course, a slow-building synth-folk lament that marries the noise-gated sound of the 80s to the mournful minimalism of Nebraska, another of Bruce’s best, most quietly intense songs.

But Tunnel of Love is something else entirely, a small-scale pop album with big vocals and smartly deployed synths over echoing, distant percussion and street-busker acoustic guitar. It plays with distance and closeness. Sometimes it sounds like it’s as far away as the fulfillment that the forlorn singer is longing for and confused about in his failing marriage. Other times it makes dark and broken feelings sound like communal hugs, as on the brilliant “Brilliant Disguise,” with one of the man’s best hooks parachuting in on a minor chord in the middle of pristine R.E.M. jangle. It’s maybe the most ebullient song about trust issues ever.

 

VIDEO: Bruce Springsteen “Brilliant Disguise”

What’s novel, at least at the time, is how the man imbues traditional signifiers of matrimony (“Valentine’s Day,” “Tunnel of Love”) and masculinity (“Tougher Than the Rest,” “Walk Like a Man”) with his underrated sense of irony. Here these titles become symbols of dissolution and despair. Springsteen more or less became the superstar he is by showing how vulnerable traditional masculinity can be, behind the denim and blue-collar service jobs. How complicated a Vietnam vet can feel over being used by his country. 

Tunnel of Love is by no means his most literary or innovative album. But the broken solitude resembles the synth-friendly sadboy era of modern pop like nothing else he ever made. Of course, 25 years from now whatever replaces TikTok could make something from The Ghost of Tom Joad go viral for all we know. But in 2022 we’re celebrating the Springsteen album that sounds most like 2022, and it’s one of his absolute best.

 

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Ted Miller

Ted Miller is trying to collect the head of every Guns ‘n Roses’ guitarist for his rec room. He currently has three.

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