Is Tunnel of Love Bruce Springsteen’s best album? Maybe not, but the story behind it is the most compelling. It’s about the wilting of one love and the suggestion – just a suggestion at this point — of another. With his previous album, 1984’s Born in the U.S.A., the big break had finally come to Springsteen after nearly 15 years of hard work, but as these things tend to go, the glory, the money, the recognition, was bittersweet, usurping whatever life Springsteen was trying to have offstage.
As for that life, he had wanted a “fairytale,” he once said, as most people do. So, rather impulsively, at least to the people on the outside, he married actress Julianne Phillips in a candlelit ceremony at midnight. “I met a girl and we ran away,” he explains on “Two Faces,” perhaps the linchpin of Tunnel Of Love, and “I swore I’d make her happy every day.” That sounds like a fairytale, or at least the end of a Jane Austen novel. But did he and Phillips even have a story, or time to write one? Once offstage, finished with the Born in the U.S.A. tour, it seemed all Springsteen wanted was to be back onstage, an experience he’s described as “like walking onto a beach.” But he had to write another album to get there.
Tunnel of Love is really the beginning of the rest of Springsteen’s career, the deconstruction of a fairytale, a parent telling a child Santa Claus doesn’t exist, a boy reluctantly becoming a man. The album begins with “Ain’t Got You,” with Springsteen uneasily cataloging all the fortune his career has brought him. Though it’s unlike him, he’s also puffing himself up, as if saying to the woman in question, “If I’m not enough, look at all these people who want a piece of me, look at all I can give you.” His dowry, as it were.
I got a house full of Rembrandt and priceless art
And all the little girls, they wanna tear me apart
When I walk down the street people stop and stare
Well, you think I might be thrilled but baby, I don’t care
’Cause I got more good luck honey than old King Farouk
But the only thing I ain’t got baby, I ain’t got you
It’s tempting to say the “you” is Patti Scialfa, his backup singer and eventually his wife. They had dated in 1984, the year before Springsteen married Phillips, and he and Scialfa had a fondness for sharing a mic, literally cheek to cheek, during the Born in the U.S.A. and Tunnel of Love tours. Their onstage chemistry continued to build, something concertgoers and the media talked about at the time, and which everyone else is now able to experience for themselves thanks to this:
This roleplaying, Scialfa playing the female character in a series of songs about a couple trying to make things work, was, it turns out, more authentic than the couple Springsteen was writing about. Springsteen and Phillips didn’t even seem to know each other that well: there was no foundation, no common ground. Scialfa, meanwhile, was “from one town over,” as Springsteen noted in a 1987 interview. “Brilliant Disguise”:
Well I tried so hard, baby
But I just can’t see
What a woman like you
Is doing with me
Later in “Brilliant Disguise,” Springsteen talks about pretending, about trying to be the characters in the fairytale: the woman “play[s] the loving one” while he “play[s] the faithful man.” But the relationship is too volatile for him to think past the latest truce (“Just don’t look too close / into the palm of my hand”). There’s a lot of talk of trying to predict the future, of betting everything on little signs and superstitions, as the young and impulsive are wont to do: “The gypsy swore our future was right.” Fittingly, the song is deceptively upbeat, like a late-period Roy Orbison track: major key, twinkling pianos, shimmying rhythm. Ignore the lyrics and it’s persistently, defiantly happy, a perfect way of depicting its singer’s inner torment.
“Tunnel of Love” is a good song that would be great if only it repeated its excellent chorus more than once:
There’s a crazy mirror showing us both in 5-D
I’m laughing at you and you’re laughing at me
There’s a room of shadows that gets so dark, brother
It’s easy for two people to lose each other
In this tunnel of love
On “Tunnel of Love” Springsteen also reintroduces a Janus-type character. He describes being on the ride, “just the three of us / you and me / and all that stuff we’re so scared of.” In “Two Faces,” this third person shows up as “another” man, really a darker, more destructive version of the singer: the guy who wants to flee, who doesn’t want to make things work, who doesn’t want to do as the righteous narrator in “Tunnel of Love” advises and “learn to live with what you can’t rise above.” On first listen this “other man” sounds like someone threatening to take his woman away, when really the singer turns out to be the one with the wandering eyes: he and Scialfa get together when he and Phillips are still married. On paper, there’s something sinister, Poesque, about these lyrics:
At night I get down on my knees and pray
Our love will make that other man go away
But he’ll never say goodbye
Two faces have I
It was clear long before this, with feats like “It’s Hard to Be a Saint in the City,” that Springsteen was a brilliant lyricist, but on Tunnel of Love he leaps far ahead of his own experiences, possessing a wisdom in storytelling that he (clearly regretfully) hadn’t yet mastered in real life. He’s so good at storytelling here that the chorus of “Spare Parts,” a classic Springsteen tale about young love, pulls its weight in the space of three short lines: “Spare parts / and broken hearts / keep the world turning around.”
“Tougher Than the Rest,” the crown jewel of Tunnel of Love, isn’t so straightforward in its message, even if it sounds the most like a hit. Now, it sounds like a classic ’80s rock song, with its thick synths and reverbed drums, but leave aside those period-piece elements (or embrace them, as I do), and it’s just a devastating ballad.
The road is dark
And it’s a thin thin line
But I want you to know
I’ll walk it for you any time
Maybe your other boyfriends
Couldn’t pass the test
Well if you’re rough and ready for love
Honey, I’m tougher than the rest
What does it mean to be “tougher” than the rest? Is this failed husband suddenly swearing that he’ll master commitment the second time around? Or does “tougher” mean the opposite, that the lady in question should watch out?
Perhaps the first, read not literally, but as a cynical eulogy: an old, well-meaning song that wasn’t recorded until after long after its promise had been broken.