Every subset of Bruce Springsteen's massive fanbase has its favorite album. Romantic baby boomers go for 1975's Born to Run. Cynical ones prefer 1978's Darkness on the Edge of Town. Alt-country and indie-rock dudes like 1982's stark and spare Nebraska. Confused conservatives and people who only know the hits opt for the 1984 blockbuster Born In the U.S.A.
Perfectly reasonable people might also make the case for 1980's The River or even 1987's Tunnel of Love. But nobody rides for Human Touch or Lucky Town, the two LPs the Boss dropped 25 years ago today, on March 31, 1992.
Bruce recorded both albums after dissolving his faithful backing crew, the E Street Band, and moving from his home state of New Jersey to L.A., of all places. Watching Springsteen rock with a fresh gang of West Coast studio pros was like seeing your dad pull up in a convertible with an earring and a new girlfriend. You wanted to be happy for the guy, but something wasn't right.
Although Human Touch and Lucky Town reached No. 2 and No. 3, respectively, and both went platinum, they're very much the bastard children of Bruce's discography. In this age of hot takes and digital contrarianism, the silver anniversary of these unloved discs forces the question: Is there anything worth remembering about this brief period in Boss history? Springsteen recently told Rolling Stone that he likes both records, though he's rarely revisited this material since reuniting the E Street Band in 1999.
Bruce is right to insist there are great songs on each. While some critics wish he'd cherry-picked the choicest cuts to make one stronger collection, this wouldn't have worked, given how different the albums sound. Springsteen labored over Human Touch for 18 months, and that shows in the slick, synth-heavy music. The worst thing you can say about the album is that it's overcooked. ("Real Man," a very unlucky track 13, might be the worst thing he's ever done.) Lucky Town came together afterward, in just a few weeks. It's a straight-up rock record whose biggest drawback is the lack of musical imagination.
But across these two non-masterpieces, there are definitely songs worth adding to all-time Springsteen playlists and perhaps even requesting in concert via those popular "stump the band" signs. The two title tracks (both singles) are excellent. "Human Touch," a pragmatic look at romance, feels like a natural extension of Tunnel of Love, which chronicled his divorce from actress Julianne Phillips. "Lucky Town" suggests Springsteen wasn't kidding when he told Q magazine in 1992 that he'd been digging Social Distortion. You can imagine Mike Ness giving this one the L.A. punkabilly treatment.
The other singles are also quite strong. "Better Days" and "Leap of Faith," seemingly about life with then-new bride Patti Scialfa, are a pair of irresistibly exuberant rockers. "If I Should Fall Behind" is one of Bruce's greatest ride-or-die companionship songs -- and the man's got a lot. When the E Street Band reformed in 1999, they made it a symbol of their reconciliation, and it's received frequent live airings ever since.
"57 Channels (And Nothin' On)," the second single from Human Touch, is a wonderful outlier. Featuring Bruce on bass -- an instrument Randy Jackson plays elsewhere on the album -- it's a bouncing electro-rockabilly commentary on mass media. The storytelling has almost an almost Chuck Berry-like quality: Bruce's character buys a fancy TV for his girl, loses her, and then pays homage to Elvis Presley's legendary firearms antics by unloading his .44 into the screen. He gets arrested for "disturbin' the almighty peace" -- a somewhat dark ending that recalls the fate of at least two characters on Born in the U.S.A.
Of the two albums, Human Touch is the one that would've benefited more from some E Street love. Consequently, the other keepers are ones that hark back to Springsteen's earlier work. "Soul Driver," featuring hearty backing vocals from Sam Moore and a pleading guitar solo from Bruce, deserves the full-band sax-and-keys treatment. (Bruce tried an acoustic version on his 2005 solo acoustic tour.) "Roll of the Dice," co-written by the one E Streeter to play on the album, pianist Roy Bittan, isn't a tremendous piece of songwriting, but it's classic Boss twinkle and thud, complete with lyrics that treat love like a last chance power drive.
"Man's Job," a jangling number with a slide-guitar solo, could almost be Bruce's lost Traveling Wilburys audition tape. It finds the Boss contemplating traditional notions of masculinity, another common theme in his work. If the title phrase makes it seem like a macho song -- something casual observers might have expected after Bruce's bulging-bicep Born in the U.S.A. phase -- the guy in this song isn't looking to be a ladykiller. His definition of what makes a man: "I've got somethin' in my soul / and I wanna give it up."
On Lucky Town, the other two gems are "Local Hero," wherein Bruce gets refreshingly silly and self-referential, and "Living Proof," a moving song about becoming a father. (He and Patti welcomed their first child, Evan, in July 1990.) On the latter, Springsteen looks at the little boy in his bed and tells his wife, "Tonight let's lie beneath the eaves / Just a close band of happy thieves." It's an especially happy ending for a man who's always been "isolated psychologically," as Bruce said in that revealing 1992 Q interview. His music, he said, represents one big attempt to connect with others, something he's struggled with in real life.
Relative to other millionaire rock stars with houses in the hills, Springsteen has forged meaningful bonds with his fans. What he may have underestimated circa 1992 was the extent to which the E Street Band fosters those feelings of community. Regardless of what goes on behind the scenes, the group is a family his audience wants to believe in and feel a part of. It's also what turns good-to-great rock songs into transcendent anthems for all types of individuals. People come to Bruce shows with different baggage, beliefs, and dream setlists. Everyone is seeking the same shared experience.