“Well my soul checked out missing as I sat listening
To the hours and minutes tickin’ away
Yeah, just sittin’ around waitin’ for my life to begin
While it was all just slippin’ away. ” – Better Days
It’s an odd thing but the workaholic, perfectionist streak that was behind those arduous sessions for, say, Born To Run and the near-bankrupting sessions for The River that lead to those albums’ brilliance, can often lead to adding so much polish to something that you’re blinded to the turd underneath the shine. Just look at Human Touch. Far too much time and take-after-take on tracks that were second-rate for Bruce (don’t get me wrong, other artists have made long careers off of worse but Mr Springsteen set the bar higher for all including himself).
At the end of the sessions for Human Touch, Bruce felt he needed one more song. He wrote ‘Living Proof’ and hit a streak which bought another ten songs in rapid succession. All of them (with the exception of ‘Happy’) were released as Lucky Town.
When I first bought these two albums I did so at the same time – I believe it was after having bought a ‘double’ which contained both Nebraska and Darkness so they were always gonna struggle to compare – and, initially, it was (as with many others I’ve read) Human Touch that I preferred. Yet on repeated listens and with the passing of time it’s Lucky Town that I go back to more. I find it’s quiet and more-adult contemplations get better with time and experience.
There’s something so much lighter about it yet it’s so much more focused and the song-writing stronger and more convincingly true than on Human Touch. While I’ll skip ‘Leap of Faith’ and’Big Muddy’ the remainder aren’t too bad at all and some I’d even call great.
‘Better Days’ is a strong kick-off and one that captures the happiness and contentment in his new life and how he struggled to reconcile such feelings with his former life -“It’s a sad funny ending to find yourself pretending, a rich man in a poor man’s shirt…. a life of leisure and a pirate’s treasure don’t make much for tragedy” – and the dichotomy of how to write about it rather than his previous muses that Bruce spent the majority of Human Touch and a later, never to be released, album fumbling around.
The song that sparked the whole album off, ‘Living Proof’, is one that I came to appreciate more as I added more years to my own clock, especially with fatherhood. While the slightly too slick and heavy session musicians almost marr it, the production isn’t as overwhelming as on this albums’ sister and it’s hard to deny the genuine salvation Bruce had found in this himself, the same goes for ‘My Beautiful Reward‘. *
Perhaps the album’s most lasting export, though, is ‘If I Should Fall Behind’ which very quickly outgrew it’s relatively minor representation here and became a centrepiece of many a live show and no doubt features in a lot of fan favourite lists. A beautiful, hushed hymn to his wife as they began their new life together which manages to do that magical thing a good Bruce Springsteen song can do – take something personal to him and make it universal to all and, if you check the notes, it’s one of those in which he played everything (save the drums) himself ensuring a) it comes across as intended and b) isn’t marred by flat playing:
‘Souls of the Departed’ is a strong song, touching back to the themes of ‘Born In The USA’ – only this time spurred by the Gulf War and the LA Riots; “This is a prayer for the souls of the departed, those who’ve gone and left their babies brokenhearted, young lives over before they got started” only with added personal clout this time round as all Bruce, while tucking his son into bed, “can think of is what if it would’ve been him instead.” It’s a bitter, cynical and biting song. Oddly enough Bruce managed to spend the 80’s avoiding having his work inflected too much by popular sound trends and the big sound on ‘Born In The USA’ pushes the song forward and lifts it. On ‘Souls..’ the sound is big but it was almost dated by the time it was released. It’s one of those from this era that I’d so very love to hear with the clout of Max Weinberg and a searing lick from Nils. Oh well. Still, I think more tunes from Lucky Town have been played live in recent years than from its sister album.
In his book Bruce does mention how he auditioned a lot of session players for his new band. How he struggled to find – given how many musicians there must be per square metre in that place I do wonder how hard he looked – a drummer with sufficient skill and clout… But he was determined to try routes new so calling The band wasn’t on the cards. It’s perhaps telling how he now feels about the band he assembled and its reception given how scant a summary he gives; there’s no enthusiastic wrap-up of concerts given or even much commentary of how it was received.
To be honest, it’s probably that which stops this album going higher up the list. Some of the songs on here stand head and shoulders above later and earlier duds but it’s the overall sound and lack of richness that comes with most Springsteen albums that handicaps Lucky Town and the songs on it. The players may have been top notch (for all my comments Gary Mallaber is a fine drummer) but the chemistry and spark just feels that little bit hollower and the production has dated poorly.
I think that, with the release of Human Touch and Lucky Town, two very-slick, glossy albums with a production that almost buffed the (ironically) human touch from Bruce’s songs, a lot of fans that had been held enraptured since the early seventies stopped listening and many didn’t really pay much attention again.
It’s a shame, for on Lucky Town there are some real gems. As any artist who releases a double album (or two single ones on the same day) will no doubt face the commentary that the project would’ve worked better whittled down to a single disc. It’s certainly true here. Oddly I think Bruce’s entire decade would probably have been kicked off and gone differently, and regarded as such in hindsight, had he binned pretty much all of Human Touch, dropped the title track onto Lucky Town, swapped ‘Leap of Faith’ for ‘With Every Wish’….. I think every fan has probably done this but, perhaps, mine would go something like this: