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Then It All Falls Apart: Tunnel Of Love At 30

By the middle of the 1980s, Bruce Springsteen was on top of the world. In 1984, he released Born In The U.S.A., the album that sparked what had been building over years in his career, jettisoning him to true superstar status. Seven top-10 hits, Beatlemania-esque fervor from new fans, a massive tour, and one of the best-selling albums of all time, period—Born In The U.S.A. was, and is, gigantic. And despite what Springsteen fans of a certain age might argue thanks to a still-harbored disdain for his era of pop success, Born In The U.S.A. also felt like the quintessential Springsteen album in many ways. It had stories of small town desperation and economic anxiety and righteous social anger and love and lust and reckoning with the people and places you came from, all communicated in rock songs ambitious in their magnitude and scope yet economical and subtle in their storytelling. It was a place where all the different strands Springsteen had explored in the preceding 10 or so years came together into one blockbuster result, an album for the ages.

Surely, he would capitalize on his newfound stature and pop clout. Surely, he would deliver a sequel just as massive and indelible. That isn’t what happened. Instead, on October 9, 1987 — 30 years ago today — Springsteen released the surprising followup to Born In The U.S.A. It was called Tunnel Of Love.

Up until that point, no two records in Springsteen’s catalog were very similar; there was connective tissue and a certain arc, but each record was discrete in tone, character, and sound. Tunnel Of Love followed suit. Just as Springsteen had followed the breakthrough and rollicking E Street sound of The River with the haunted Nebraska, the biggest album of his career would be followed by a more insular work. Tunnel Of Love was a mature comedown from the heights of Born In The U.S.A., but it was also more than that in the broader context of Springsteen’s career. It was the somber epilogue to his peak years, a meditative and conflicted endpoint that found Springsteen tackling weightier, personal topics. And, in hindsight, it was also a turning point, a record that presaged the wilderness years of Springsteen’s ‘90s.

When Springsteen reissued The River in late 2015 and subsequently embarked on a massive E Street Band tour behind it, he spent a lot of time talking about what a turning point that record was, how it was his first attempt to truly dig into topics like marriage and family. Adult concerns, real life. But he didn’t have that life himself yet, he was still a young touring rock musician. He was examining it partly as a way to imagine himself being able to live it. By 1987, he was married to his first wife, the actress Julianne Phillips, and talk of an album of love songs following Born In The U.S.A., naturally, seemed like it’d be a depiction of some contentment—a rich and successful musician, happily married.

That was, of course, another way in which Tunnel Of Love was a misdirect. Springsteen and Phillips had married in 1985, and by the time he was writing Tunnel Of Love, their relationship was already fracturing. The album’s title and the love songs within it weren’t ones of marital bliss, but instead complex reflections on the difficulty of marriage, the pressure of eternity, and the impossibilities of relationships in general. When he gathered the E Street Band to tour behind Tunnel Of Love, his romance with his future and current wife Patti Scialfa simmered. He and Phillips were divorced in 1989.

That makes Tunnel Of Love a lot of things right off the bat. It’s the first time he approached love with the perspective of a middle-aged, married man, but it’s also a divorce album. It’s the anguished album following an iconic classic, finding Springsteen parsing and trying to make peace with the seismic personal and professional shifts he had suddenly experienced in his life.

All of that is immediately in play on the album’s opening track, “Ain’t Got You.” Almost coming across like a lark, it’s a jaunty acoustic track cribbing a Bo Diddley beat. In it, Springsteen literally takes stock of being a famous and wealthy musician, singing lines like “I got a house full of Rembrandt and priceless art/ And all the little girls they want to tear me apart/ When I walk down the street people stop and stare/ Well you’d think I might be thrilled but baby I don’t care” and things as plain as “I got all the riches, baby, any man ever knew.” The whole thing is disenchanted, not just because of a discomfort with his new celebrity life but because, as the lyric keeps wrapping back around, none of it matters if Springsteen still can’t get the woman he wants. All the rest of it is meaningless if he ain’t got you.

It’s a bizarre outlier of a Springsteen song—for years, he was already plenty successful by the standards of someone who had once been a local Jersey Shore musician, but he’d still been drawn to the same stories he’d always told, of everyday people and their struggles in depleted, post-industrial America. For him to bitch about being a rich rockstar…that was something different. And Steven Van Zandt—who wasn’t in the E Street Band at the time but was still a friend and close adviser of Springsteen’s—took him to task for it. As he related in David Remnick’s sprawling 2012 New Yorker profile, Springsteen played Van Zandt the song ahead of Tunnel Of Love’s release, prompting his friend to react incredulously:

Van Zandt recognized the self-mockery but didn’t care. He was aghast.

“We had one of our biggest fights of our lives,” Van Zandt recalled. “I’m, like, ‘What the fuck is this?’ And he’s, like, ‘Well, what do you mean, it’s the truth. It’s just who I am, it’s my life.’ And I’m, like, ‘This is bullshit. People don’t need you talking about your life. Nobody gives a shit about your life. They need you for their lives. That’s your thing. Giving some logic and reason and sympathy and passion to this cold, fragmented, confusing world—that’s your gift. Explaining their lives to them. Their lives, not yours.’ And we fought and fought and fought and fought. He says ‘Fuck you,’ I say ‘Fuck you.’ I think something in what I said probably resonated.”

From there, Tunnel Of Love is still very much about Springsteen’s life, but in ways that were more immediately universal—ways that, while more downtempo and downtrodden, were still what the man did best, capturing quotidian struggles anyone could find themselves in. In many ways, “Ain’t Got You” is a weird prologue before the album’s real opener and mission statement: “Tougher Than The Rest.” Built on a calmly insistent beat and moody synths, “Tougher Than The Rest” kicks the album off with a bleak portrayal of love. With lines like “Well ‘round here baby/ I learned you get what you can get” and “Well it ain’t no secret/ I’ve been around a time or two/ Well I don’t know baby, maybe you’ve been around too,” it’s about as inspiring a come-on as the famous “Thunder Road” line “You ain’t a beauty but, hey, you’re all right.” Fittingly, “Tougher Than The Rest” introduces the album’s main themes from the perspective of people who are a bit weathered, people who might settle because, hey, it’s all right.

The song also set the sonic boundaries of the album more clearly than “Ain’t Got You.” Though E Street members contributed here and there across the album, Tunnel Of Love was really a solo affair, with Springsteen recording much of it with guitar, mournful synth textures, and drum machines. Some of the songs sound like they could be country laments in other contexts, but the subtle chilliness of the drums and synths conjure up a different place. It’s an album that, appropriately enough, sounds like a dead-end, disappointed representation of places Springsteen had passed through before. Tunnel Of Love is the sound of saddened boardwalk Americana for gray rainy days, solitary music dressed up with an ‘80s sheen, but one where the neon signs are flickering and grainy, running out of time and energy.

Springsteen used those aesthetics as a foundation for songs that tackled love and its spectrum of experiences, but mostly landing solidly in a place of disenchantment, fixating on romance’s shortcomings or the way it withers and dies as two people grow apart. “Spare Parts” reiterates a classic Springsteen narrative, an accidental pregnancy and a would-be father who flees. “Two Faces” is told from the perspective of a man who tries to be good in his relationship but, true to the title, has another side that keeps making things worse. “When You’re Alone” is a bitter recollection of a past relationship that climaxes with the proclamation “It’s just nobody knows, honey, where love goes/ But when it goes it’s gone, gone.” There are occasional counterpoints: For all its tearjerker qualities, “Valentine’s Day” closes the album with a man trying to get home, the final lines of the album a plea of “So hold me close, honey, say you’re forever mine/ And tell me you’ll be my lonely valentine” before the track rides out on a slow wave of synths. But given their surroundings, those moments feel like lost former lives, vicarious visions, or hopes for a different future with a different person.

Rather, there’s a verse in the defeated “One Step Up” that sums up much of Tunnel Of Love’s emotional territory:

It’s the same thing night on night
Who’s wrong, baby, who’s right
Another fight and I slam the door on
Another battle in our dirty little war
When I look at myself I don’t see
The man I wanted to be
Somewhere along the line I slipped off track
Caught movin’ one step up and two steps back

There, Springsteen zeroes in on it: the unbreakable cycles, the patterns that choke and kill a relationship. In the context of that song, it’s a man who doesn’t recognize who he’s become, doesn’t know himself well enough to know someone else. Perhaps it’s easy to read into those words, to imagine a Springsteen lost in his fame, not knowing how he wound up there. But it’s also easy to imagine in general—time starts to tumble by quicker and quicker, and soon enough you can look around with only a fuzzy recollection of the steps that brought you to this destination.

The way time slowly erodes connections is a big concept for the record, as is the idea of how time reshapes, corrupts, or clarifies your perception of relationships and how they work, whether in past experience or in the abstract. Tunnel Of Love featured two of Springsteen’s bigger, and best, songs amidst the beloved deep cuts: its title track and “Brilliant Disguise.” The former is a perfect example of that destructive relationship between time and love. It’s a carnival scene, a boardwalk scene, two young lovers taking a ride together—it makes “Tunnel Of Love” an echo of the innocence of Springsteen’s early records, re-contextualized with the knowledge of what comes next. At first, you can mistake the track for an earnestly romantic synth-pop epic. Then Springsteen delivers the key line: “It’s easy for two people to lose each other in this tunnel of love.” There’s a final verse that fleshes out the point, but you almost don’t need it—he sets up the metaphor, then knocks back against that image of young exhilaration with one far more sobering.

“Tunnel Of Love” and “Brilliant Disguise” work together in that way, the former laced with nostalgia and mild heartbreak, a more dreamlike backdrop that plays off the very real premise of “Brilliant Disguise.” And on an album full of deep-cutting portraits of failed or struggling romance, “Brilliant Disguise” is the masterpiece. It’s the best song Springsteen has ever written about relationships.

Just look at all the gut-punch lines in this one. “Well I’ve tried too hard baby/ But I just can’t see/ What a woman like you/ Is doing with me.” “Now look at me baby/ Struggling to do everything right/ And then it all falls apart.” “I want to know if it’s you I don’t trust/ ’Cause I damn sure don’t trust myself.” “Now you play the loving woman/ I’ll play the faithful man/ But just don’t look too close/ Into the palm of my hand.” Then, finally, the song’s kicker: “God have mercy on the man/ Who doubts what he’s sure of.” I mean, holy shit. It’s a brutal self-examination of a failing relationship, loaded up with helplessness and guilt and distance. And where several other songs on Tunnel Of Love have Springsteen in a contemplative but matter-of-fact vocal delivery, “Brilliant Disguise” has passion still firing within it—it’s just that, by now, it’s a confused and conflicted passion, veering in multiple directions, and you can hear real desperation and anguish creep into Springsteen’s voice as the song goes on.

The thing that’s so enduring and layered about “Brilliant Disguise,” though, is the fact that it takes on a life beyond an account of one disintegrating relationship. You can switch its placement, put it in the hands of someone who’s mostly happy in their relationship, and it’s still going to hit hard, because what the song really does is evocatively detail how impossible it is to truly know another person even when it’s the most intimate relationship in your life. It underlines the inherent mysteries of another person’s mind and emotions, the frustration and anxiety of trying to decipher it while deciphering your own. It acknowledges the roles we play to keep it afloat, because what else do you do? It definitely isn’t a happy song, but there is a way in which you can reinterpret it, discounting a few lines, as a fundamentally romantic song: not a moment where Springsteen gives up on the whole pursuit of love, but one that admits how tangled and difficult these things get, and yet might find some reason to fight through it. That there is something there that’s worth getting lost and all the strife. Years removed from Tunnel Of Love and Springsteen’s divorce, “Brilliant Disguise” takes on a totally different character when he and Scialfa sing it to each other onstage.

Both “Tunnel Of Love” and “Brilliant Disguise” were hit singles, and Springsteen’s superstardom was going to be secured anyway, but Tunnel Of Love otherwise signaled the end of an era. After touring the album, Springsteen would fire the E Street Band—a decision that still has never been fully explained—and eventually moved to Los Angeles with Scialfa. His next releases were the sister albums Human Touch and Lucky Town in 1991, and aside from the latter being semi-underrated, those records were slick and removed and anonymous compared to the raw and personal Tunnel Of Love. Perhaps he’d given too much. By the end of the ‘80s, Springsteen had attained legend status, shirked it, began dismantling what could have been a continued pop dominance by releasing a record of sad failed-love ballads, and fled to California. Regardless of the quality of whatever would come next, it was a line in the sand—the era that began all the way back in 1973 with his debut had come to a close, with a primarily solo album that said goodbye to many aspects of Springsteen’s history at once.

Of course, years later he’d come back, returning to prominence in the 21st century with the reformed E Street Band and a political climate that reignited his muse. Some of those latter-day Springsteen albums are great, far more vital than an aging classic rock artist has any right of being. But nothing quite touches that initial run, from the young scrappy folk-rock troubadour of Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J. through to the blue-collar bard of small-town America to the larger-than-life icon of the mid-‘80s, a man who had finally gotten it all and, when he looked inside, found one of his darkest albums waiting for him. If you want to look at it purely in terms of letdowns, it’s a fitting final chapter, Springsteen ending his peak years with the sharp dose of reality of Tunnel Of Love, just as his characters usually find themselves face-to-face with sharp doses of reality.

There’s a better way to look at it. Tunnel Of Love closed Springsteen’s peak years with a work that was considered, that required some life having been lived to write or to relate to. He could’ve shot for the stratosphere again, but it would’ve been false. Tunnel Of Love is something more unique: a man who hit the stratosphere, and found himself falling back down, bringing with him, as always, tales of struggle that were just like yours.