19. Human Touch (1992)
By the end of the 1980s, feeling penned in by his success and the need to explore other creative frontiers, Springsteen dismissed the E Street Band. The process had already started, with him having recorded much of 1987’s Tunnel Of Love by himself and various members of the E Street Band contributing to varying degrees after the fact, some quite minimally — or, in the case of saxophonist Clarence Clemons, not at all. Nevertheless, Springsteen wound up working with pianist/keyboardist Roy Bittan (who had joined the E Street Band before Born To Run), excited by Bittan’s new synthesizers and a few instrumental tracks he’d written on them. What resulted was the lengthy, reportedly arduous, but enjoyable process of recording Human Touch, the first album Springsteen cut with session musicians.
Released in 1992, Human Touch is easily Springsteen’s weakest album. From a production standpoint, most of the material here is sickeningly slick, all terrible synth and guitar tones that, just over 20 years on, sound more like the low-budget soundtrack to a forgotten early-’90s TV show than something put out by one of the most important pop stars in America. On the songwriting front, things aren’t much better. Call it an alarming and sudden drying up of the well, or maybe a residual creative confusion of not having his longtime band with him, but Springsteen spends most of Human Touch sounding like what lesser songwriters sound like when they try to be him. The main exception would be the title track, which, despite bearing some similarities to the superior “Tunnel Of Love,” is a pretty strong song for the era, and performed well as a single.
Though it received a more mixed reception than past Springsteen efforts — which were almost always received rapturously — Human Touch wasn’t universally reviled upon its release. But it has aged badly, and seeing Springsteen tour in support of it with a faceless group of hired hands didn’t sit well with fans or longtime members of Springsteen’s crew. In the wake of the inevitable but still triumphant reunion with the E Street Band in 1999, most fans seem content to half-forget this album ever happened and resign its memory to the lost years of Springsteen’s ’90s.