"Searching for my beautiful reward"
Putting together a single album from the multiple releases of the Boss' lost 90s years.
After listening to one of Springsteen’s concerts from the “Other Band” tour, I had that non-E Street Band stretch of the Boss’ career on my mind. It’s certainly not the music of his that I listen to… really much at all. But I still felt like there’s good stuff in those years and on the album(s) that was the driving force behind that “Other Band” tour.
I decided to borrow a “game” (or perhaps a more accurate way to phrase it is as an exercise) from Steven Hyden on his Celebration Rock podcast which he called “Fantasy A&R.” As described in the notes for one of the instances of this game being played on a podcast, Fantasy A&R is “where we take a classic album and attempt to improve/mutilate it by making our own stupid suggestions, such as adding or subtracting songs, swapping in alternate versions, and other probably ill-advised ideas.”
I decided to play this game with Springsteen during that stretch. The Boss notably released two albums, Human Touch and Lucky Town, on the same day—March 31, 1992. Springsteen had the Human Touch songs formulated in the late 1980s and wanted to release an album but various delays and then the development of the Lucky Town songs caused him to push that album back and release it on the same day as Lucky Town.
While I fully acknowledge that the songs on these albums aren’t ones I really listen to all that often, I do think there is an album’s worth of good songs that were produced in this post-Tunnel of Love/pre-E Street Band reunion stretch of Springsteen’s career. But two albums… that’s a bit much, and I think some songs that Springsteen shelved and didn’t put on either album but eventually made their way out on the Tracks boxed set were better than anything released.
So, with no further delay, here’s my single 90s Springsteen album, which I am calling Lucky Touch
I start out with the title track from Lucky Town, which I think is probably the strongest cut off any of the Boss’ 90s albums so it seems like the best one to start this album off with.
On the whole, this album I’ve created is a little heavier on the Lucky Town songs, as I prefer that album to Human Touch because I think those Lucky Town songs are a lot stronger. They’re not as strong as his E Street Band stuff but you still feel that essential Boss-ness to those tracks. Human Touch is an album you can tell really comes out of the Tunnel of Love time and sound, but the songs just aren’t as strong or interesting. The title track from Human Touch is probably the best of all of them and that gets into that Tunnel of Love mindset.
So you been broken and you been hurt.
Show me somebody who ain't.
Yeah, I know I ain't nobody's bargain.
But hell, a little touchup and a little paint.
Those lyrics on “Human Touch” have that world-weary introspection and honesty you first heard on Tunnel of Love.
The sharp contrasts between the Human Touch songs (as well as those outtakes from that same time that I drew on from Tracks) and the Lucky Town songs really jumped out to me when trying to sequence these songs. Songs like “Better Days” and “Living Proof” have some of that anthemic Springsteen DNA in them, though obviously missing the special element the E Street Band brought to the table. “Living Proof” is a song I’ve really grown to appreciate after listening to it a little bit more. I think it’s innate Boss-ness makes it something worthwhile even amidst a stretch of wandering in his career.
The lyrics do seem to resonate with the essential project of Springsteen’s entire career—this search for “the place in the sun” or “the promised land” in this world.
In a world so hard and dirty
So fouled and confused
Searching for a little bit of God's mercy
I found living proof
Meanwhile, something like “Soul Driver” and “I Wish I Were Blind” have the melancholy and the sheen that makes them sound much closer to Tunnel of Love tracks, and yet they just don’t hit those lyrical high points. Having them as “album tracks” on this album I put together seems like a much more natural space than really having to carry some of the weight on the Human Touch album Springsteen released.
“If I Should Fall Behind” is just meant to be an album closer, just like it’s meant to be a concert closer (which it eventually became), and it finally gets to take its rightful place in my reconstruction.
“Trouble in Paradise” and “Sad Eyes,” both outtakes from the Human Touch sessions that found their way to tracks, definitely fit in that style though I honestly prefer them to the songs that actually made their way on Human Touch. I wonder if “Trouble in Paradise” benefits from the Roy Bittan co-writing credit, having an E-Street guy working so closely on it.
What I think you’re able to do, taking these two albums and putting them together into one, is to highlight the strengths of each (the introspective darkness of Human Touch and the more anthemic and assertive Lucky Town) without letting them become too bloated or uninteresting. This balancing act is when Springsteen is at his best (I think about The River as being an example of a Springsteen album that does this as well, striking the balance of real darkness and real light).
But what do you think? Does this single album make Bruce’s early 90s more palatable to you? Are there tracks you would’ve included? Ones I picked that you would’ve left off?
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What a great exercise/idea! I could see myself falling down a rabbit hole and doing this for any number of bands.
I agree that the hallmark of any "good" (subjective, I know) Springsteen album is a balance of the introspective and anthemic. Sometimes that comes in sound form, and sometimes in the lyrics. This is a great place to start as Human Touch/Lucky Town could've--and IMO should've-- been one record.
Taking the best of each and distilling it into one compact record would likely have made for one of the best records in his discography. Instead, we got 2 that were...okay.