Sparks Fly On E Street: Bruce Springsteen, “Ain’t Got You” (1987)

This isn’t going to be pretty. It will, however, be honest…

It’s not in my nature to just toss up my hands at a challenge, which is what I almost did when presented with the twelve songs of Tunnel Of Love. You see, it is far and away my least favorite Springsteen album. I almost re-wrote that last sentence to avoid use of the word “favorite” as it implies that I might find something to like about the record, which is basically not true.

Yes, I know, this is Bruce moving into his “mature” phase, dealing with his problems, the result of a crumbling marriage and identity. I’ve read it many times before, along with the high praise: Bruce “at his best,” “his best album,” “a masterpiece.”

The fact that this record has never resonated with me has everything to do with how I listen to music, and “music” is the key word. When I get a new album, I go through five listens or more before I pay attention to any of the lyrics. At that stage, they’re just not that important to me. Only after the landscape of the music has coalesced in my head will the language of the album move forward. In the case of Tunnel Of Love, I never got to the lyrics because I found nearly all of the music uninspiring.

What was I expecting after the phenomenon that was Born In The USA? I don’t really know, but it wasn’t this. I didn’t want or need Bruce in an adult contemporary listening environment, but that’s what I got. Strummed acoustic guitars, light percussion (including that annoying pair of claves that keep showing up), and some dreadful keyboard/synth parts. To my ears, many of the songs come across like demos, skeletons of songs yet to be fleshed out. I remember getting to the end of “Valentine’s Day” for the first time and being sort of stunned…that I’d waited for this new Bruce album and was already waiting for the next.

It strikes me that, had the music been different, Tunnel Of Love just might have been a very important record to me. I was a few years into a marriage that was already showing ominous signs of strain. I felt alone and definitely uncomfortable in my own skin. But what the record was about just didn’t matter. Supposedly great lyrics just can’t make up for bland music.

I’m really not one to employ the snark when dealing with music but I happened onto a review of Tunnel years ago with the synopsis: “Subtract the hair from that picture and you get yourself Phil Collins. As for the music, you don’t even need to subtract the hair.” I’m sorry, but it made me laugh. Maybe I should go listen to some Phil Collins. Actually, I’d rather listen to Phil Collins than Tunnel Of Love.

Hey, I told you this would be honest.


And so now what am I to say? When “Ain’t Got You” first dropped its finger-snappin’, Bo Diddley beat on me, I can’t say that I was displeased. Heck, even that clave was sorta cool (until it wore out its welcome on later tracks). Bruce was pining for that woman, and that was alright with me.

The live version he cooked up for the Devils and Dust tour went all in the the 50′s vibe. Great stuff.

Up next: Tougher Than The Rest

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Mark Saleski

Mark Saleski is a writer and music obsessive based out of the woods of central New Hampshire. A past contributor to Jazz.com, Blogcritics.org and Salon, he writes several weekly features including the Friday Morning Listen, (Cross the) Heartland, WTF! Wednesday, and Sparks Fly on E Street. Follow him on Twitter: @msaleski. Contact Something Else! at reviews@somethingelsereviews.com.
  • AskB

    Wow, it’s interesting to see how people can differ on favorite albums, but I’m not sure I have seen ToL at the bottom before. Personally I put it among his six best albums.

    But since we are talking about least favorite. For me it’s Working On A Dream. Except for 2-3 songs I can’t stand it. My favorite track on it is actually Queen of the Supermarket! :-)

    • Mark Saleski

      well, i know i’m in the minority on Tunnel. always have been. on the other hand, i’m in the minority on really liking Working On A Dream (review here).

      you might have created your own “super-minority” by disliking the album but loving “Queen Of The Supermarket,” which many have said is the worst thing he’s ever done! heh.