Now I can imagine that for each of the albums that precede my ‘Most’ favourite in this series there’s plenty of people that will say “actually that’s my favourite..” to pretty much all of them. With the easy and obvious exception that is Springsteen’s early-nineties output. Given the scarcity with which the tracks are touched live I don’t think even Bruce cares much for them in retrospect.
Released on the same day in March 1992, neither Lucky Town or Human Touch have fared well with fans or critics. Perhaps it was the lack of E-Street support, perhaps it was the changing musical culture at the time but either way, I doubt that even the most die-hard will argue for their place in a Top Ten.
Of the two I find Human Touch the overall weakest link in Bruce’s mighty discography. These were songs that Bruce had been tooling around with for some time and had, in doing so, over-cooked. If you listen to The Christic Shows recorded in LA in 1990, many of the songs that would appear here can be heard in their early embryonic stages. They sound better. At the time it would’ve left fans eager to hear the finished result, excited by the change in direction with what sounded like some real personal stuff (though the sexually-charged ‘Red Headed Woman’ didn’t make the cut). Unfortunately when it came time to capture theses songs for release, the result was what’s now considered the nadir of Bruce’s output.
It’s not that there aren’t good songs on Human Touch it’s just that there aren’t enough of them and those that have the bones of a great song are lost under some truly awful production and sound, like ‘Soul Driver’, for example. When I do slip the cd into the car, it’s more likely that I skip through more than half of the album.
The story goes that Bruce – newly transplanted to LA – had a collection of songs that he was working on but couldn’t quite find the turning point that would bring them into a cohesive album. He wanted to continue the theme and practice of not employing the E-Street Band he’d started with Tunnel of Love and try a new approach. Then he met up with a similarly newly-moved Roy Bittan who showed him his new recording set up and synths before playing his former-Boss a few tunes he’d worked on. Inspired, Bruce went home, added a few parts and lyrics to those tracks and a long period trying to find the ‘sound’ and working with session players followed before the album was complete*.
Of those Bittan co-writes that made Human Touch ”Roll of the Dice‘ is Springsteen-by-numbers but without the heart and force of the E-Street band to lift it beyond over-glossed territory. On the other hand, ‘Real World’ is perhaps the most fully-realised of his ‘men and women’ concept that many had hoped for. There’s just not enough of it and the players and production still mar what should have been a classic.
While the production (the one and only time Roy Bittan received a credit for such) is very much of it’s time and the slick sound has never suited Bruce. It would be the last ‘rock’ album he’d release before he released that he wasn’t the right person to produce his music any more. The album does have some strong contenders, not least it’s classic title track, that stand up well to repeated listens. ‘With Every Wish’ is a great tune as is ‘I Wish I Were Blind‘. They’re more relaxed, less drenched in studio-session sound and are genuine, occasionally even tender tunes that, along with ‘Human Touch’ and ‘Real World’ are the most realised on the album. Indeed, some of his best lyrics can be found within the title track: “you can’t shut off the risk and the pain, without losing the love that remains”.
Unfortunately the remainder – to my ears – sound more like what a songwriter trying to write like Bruce Springsteen would create. They seem hollow-boned and attempts to cover the gaps with gloss and force (which may have worked with the E-Street) via top notch session players just fall flat. At the time it wasn’t so condemned but now, further on up the road, it’s blighted by dated guitar tones and synthesisers and drum beats that simply don’t measure up to Max.
Thankfully, Human Touch may have been the first release of the nineties from Mr Springsteen but from here it was only upwards in terms of quality and its sister release was a whole other story.
In the spirit of ‘what might have been’ – some of the tracks deemed not suitable for Human Touch would later appear on Tracks and, shorn of the production elements that blight it, sound (just a touch mind) a little better than those duffs rounding out the numbers here. I’d gladly swap ‘When the Lights Go Out’ for ’57 Channels’ and I still enjoy ‘Seven Angels’.
Highlights: Human Touch, Real World, With Every Wish, I Wish I Were Blind
Lowlights: Soul Driver, Man’s Job, 57 Channels and Nothin’ On, All Or Nothin’ At All
*Almost – he felt he needed one more song, wrote ‘Living Proof’ and instead dashed off enough tracks to make Lucky Town in just a few days.