Saturday, February 21, 2009

Rock Bottom: Bruce Springsteen

The one constant in every established artist's oeuvre is the bad album, the one that's reviled by both fans and critics. Those unlovable albums are the ones this feature, Rock Bottom, is concerned with.

Here's how it works: I've consulted two main sources, the AllMusic Guide (for the critical point-of-view) and Amazon.com (for the fan perspective*). The album with the lowest combined rating from both sources is the one I'll consider the worst. I may not alw
ays agree with the choice, and my reviews will reflect that. I'll also offer a considered alternative. Finally, there are some limits. The following types of albums don't count: 1) b-sides or remix compilations, 2) live albums, 3) albums recorded when the band was missing a vital member, and 4) forays into a different genres (i.e. classical).

*A note about Amazon.com. I consider this the fan perspective, because most people who choose to review albums on this site are adoring fans of the artist in question.

* * *

Fans and critics both agree that Human Touch is Bruce Springsteen's worst album, they just can't agree on the reason why.

William Ruhlmann of the All Music Guide believes it's an record full of "minor genre material" that doesn't "aspire to greatness." So, basically, he thinks that the Boss' lack of ambition sinks the record. Springsteen fan L. Petit, who reviewed the album on Amazon.com stays along those lines, calling the songwriting "lazy" and "empty."

Fellow reviewers Zach Everson and Tduff both lay the blame on the production, that old favorite. The former says there are "too many bells and whistles thrown in and not enough focus on the vocals and guitars." Still others, like Snobophone, Brian Rubendall, and MILAU blame the absence of the E Street Band for the record's lack of punch.

So which is it? And is Human Touch really Springsteen's worst? Let's look at each possible reasaon.

First, does ambition make a record better? Or, conversely, does it redeem a bad record? Is this really a valid way to judge music? "I absolutely hated listening to this record, but at least the artist tried hard." I don't think that works, so I dismiss Ruhlmann's lack of ambition logic.

Blaming production or the lack of the E Street Band assumes that the material is strong, just not the delivery. Little Steven, Max Weinberg, and Clarance Cleamons are all talented, but they can't improve a melody or lyric sheet. Besides, Bruce had already proven he could be artistically successful without all of the E Streeters in tow, as he did on Nebraska and Tunnel of Love. Good production, likewise, can't mask bad songwriting. Anyway, except for Real Man, the production on Human Touch isn't all that dated. So I'm not so sure of those excuses.

I probably fall most in line with Petit. The songs here are just not strong. In fact, make a list of Springsteen's worst tendencies and you'll find an example of each on this record.

The Boss's fallback vocal style is to scream instead of sing. It can work if the melody is strong enough (as on Glory Days, for example), but when the songs are of iffy pedigree, watch out. It makes him sound weirdly like Billy Joel doing Shameless (which is a fine song, but I don't want to hear that rasp for any extended period of time). The worst offenders on Human Touch are Gloria's Eyes, Roll of the Dice, and Real Man.

Springsteen is often hailed for his lyrics, but in my opinion he walks a very thin tightrope between brilliant and laughable. At his laziest, the Boss will rely on cliched phrases (as he does on All or Nothin' At All), or rhyming dictionary couplets (like on this gem from The Long Goodbye: "Waitin' on rain, hangin' on for love / words of forgiveness from some god above.") On that same note, do you have a dad or grandfather who is full of "wisdom" that is actually just strings of worn-out cliches? If you don't, get this record and you can learn things like "with every wish there comes a curse" (With Every Wish).

Another hit or miss proposition is Springsteen's earnestness. He's not a guy who puts much humor or levity in his music. His earnestness has an appeal, but can become tiresome, as it does on the love songs Cross My Heart and I Wish I Were Blind.

Bruce also has a knack for slightly uncomfortable imagery, especially when he refers to sex. The Born to Run line "strap your legs 'cross my engines" comes immediately to mind. Well, get ready for a little bit of skin crawling when you listen to Man's Job ("Lovin' you's a man's job, baby") or Real Man ("Well you can beat on your chest / Any monkey can / You got me feelin' like a real man").

Finally, Springsteen has a weird fascination with being "folksy", and I don't mean that in a musical sense, even though he has dabbled in that genre multiple times. No, what I mean is that Springsteen is from New Jersey, but sometimes pretends like he grew up in 1930's Oklahoma. On Every Wish he claims to have "courted" a girl named Doreen, on Real Man he takes his "baby to a picture show." In Pony Boy, he implores the titular figure to "giddy-up, giddy-up, giddy-away."

But Human Touch isn't just a collection of bad habits. There are some shining moments. Unfortunately, they all come at the beginning of an overlong record. The title track is a classic Springsteen tune; maybe that's why it sounds completely out of place with the rest of the album. The second song, Soul Driver features some nice harmonies from Sam Moore (of Sam & Dave fame). I like it even if I have no idea what a soul driver is. The final standout is 57 Channels (and Nothin' On), a minimalist commentary on the soullessness of modern decadence (or something like that). By no means does it belong on any Springsteen best of, but it does earn points for being something unique in an album of sameness.

Human Touch does have its admirers. Amazon.com reviewer Jordan Silversmith says "This is a sublime record. Very sublime." Not sure about the necessity of the "very" there, but okay. And though it's the worse of the two albums Springsteen released simultaneously in '92, Human Touch does have better cover than its companion album, Lucky Town. Plus, Randy Jackson (of American Idol) played bass on the record! So it's not all bad.

Some fans even point out that despite its generic nature, Human Touch is at least very listenable. That's true, and that's definitely not the case with the other two albums that vied for the title of Springsteen's worst, the laborious The Ghost of Tom Joad and the plodding Devils + Dust.

Even so, Human Touch has an almost complete lack of the substance and style. For some reason I think of 1980's The River. That album contained a lot of workmanlike tunes and not a lot of standouts, but there was still an inherent power and weight to even the lesser songs. Whatever story or meaning one finds in most of the songs on Human Touch has to be self-invented, and that's why it's the Boss's Rock Bottom.

Author's Note: This is album review #211.

3 comments:

Zach said...

After rereading your review, I gave Human Touch another listen. I stand by my Amazon.com review: poor production is largely to blame for the weak album.

Lyrically there are some good songs: the title track, Soul Driver, With Every Wish, Real World, and I Wish I Were Blind.

Springsteen regularly played a great solo piano version of Real World on the Devils & Dust tour. he often introduced the song by saying he'd gotten it wrong on the album. On Human Touch, the song's great lyrics are overshadowed by all of the gimmicky music.

The other problem is simply too many songs. Human Touch and Lucky Town, which were released simultaneously, should have been one album.

Alex said...

Ah... well if it's got Randy Jackson on it! :)

Anonymous said...

I've been a massive fan of Bruce since the dawn of the 80s. Man's Job happens to be one of my top ten faves of all Bruce's songs (I'm a female, so that might be part of it.. dunnoh). I don't think this album is the worst by any stretch. I pick the phoney baloney "We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions"... just feels like a phase he was going through.