Sunday, January 4, 2015

The Light and the Tunnel

Since soul music roots in gospel, it seems strange that there isn't more returning the favor on the part of gospel music -- while mass choirs often have a funky flair to some of their numbers, the actual amount of music that could motivate just as much movin' and shoutin' on the dance floor as in the sanctuary isn't as common as we might wish it was.

Liz Vice apparently feels the same way, and the 10 songs on her 2014 debut There's a Light will go a long way towards remedying that situation. Nearly every track could sit on your left shoulder while a more secular number tempting you to do wrong sat on your right, and you could tell the tempter to take a hike 'cause you had some toes to tap.

The album opens with a one-two funky punch of "Abide" and "Empty Me Out" before slowing down for the bluesy "Entrance" and the Nina-Simone-like "The Source." John Shaft could strut down the street in front of "Truly Today," but he'd better be on his way to church, because Vice is singing about Christ's sacrifice on our behalf. "Pure Religion" begins a take on the old spiritual with just Vice singing before adding first a bass groove and then some horns.

In her voice, Vice has a multi-use instrument that can handle both the jazzy vocalist strand of slower tempo songs of the classic soul sound like "Enclosed by You" as well as a R&B-influenced shouter like "There's a Light." The former asks God if he will remain faithful even when we don't, while the latter closes the album with a proclamation that he will indeed do just that.

While I'm not necessarily on the "all Christian pop music is dreck" bandwagon -- I think that sentence has just about as much truth today if you omit the second word -- I readily acknowledge that religious musicians often face just as many constraints on their work as do any artists tied closely to a genre identity. Given that, There's a Light would be a welcome listen even if it was mediocre. That it isn't is just that much more of a bonus.
His record company probably didn't know what to do with Bruce Springsteen at some points -- he made them lots of money, but he would follow up commercial successes with odd sideways turns that seemed designed to drive off everyone he'd just picked up. Born to Run led to Darkness on the Edge of TownThe River and "Hungry Heart" gave way to the stripped-down acoustic Nebraska and its bleak folk ballads, and in 1987, following the cultural phenomenon of Born in the U.S.A. and the Live 1975-1985 box set came the reflective, unsettled, almost distracted-feeling Tunnel of Love.

According to the discussion of the album in Peter Ames Carlin's Bruce, much of it came together in a time when Springsteen was in uncertain waters both professionally and personally. If some earlier songs had been movies about the promise of what love could bring, Tunnel featured some of what happens after the credits roll. Musically, the collaborative nature of recording with the E Street Band didn't mesh with what he wanted to do. But his longtime history with the band members meant he couldn't just direct them as he might session musicians. The result is a fascinating but musically diminished album that definitely reflects the limitations of its era and technology.

Like Nebraska, Springsteen recorded demos of the songs with just himself playing and singing. Unlike Nebraska, though, he had the advantage of new technology that allowed the creation of electronic drum tracks and other substitutes for musicians playing instruments. According to Carlin, Springsteen particularly liked the sound of the demos and had to be talked into seeing if E Street band members could play the parts and improve the song. Even if some of them did, that was no guarantee that the others would, and so Tunnel's songs are a mix of computer tracks and live musicians -- the title track is the only song with anything like a full band and longtime E Street fixture saxophonist Clarence Clemons shows up only as a backing vocalist in "One Step Up." Bassist Garry Tallent is only on "Spare Parts."

All of the songs are at least interesting, even if the electronic substitutions leave them lacking in several respects. Springsteen experimented with a more country sound and rhythm, as "Tougher than the Rest" would sound at home on any Dwight Yoakam album and Tallent whipped up a "Rawhide"-styled bass line on "Spare Parts" that amplifies the urgency of the story. But the mix of live and electronic instrumentation damages the former with a leaden synthesizer line, as does the ticky-tacky sound of drum machines on several numbers where E Street drummer Max Weinberg is either absent or only adds non-drum percussion.

Lyrically, Tunnel presents some of the other side of the coin to some earlier work. "Cautious Man" is about a man who wonders if he is has it in him to be a dependable husband and perhaps father -- but unlike the self-justifying weasel of "Hungry Heart," he stays in the midst of his uncertainty rather than going out for a ride and never going back. In "Brilliant Disguise," Springsteen sings about a man who's not sure if he really knows the woman he is with...or in the end, if he even knows himself. "One Step Up" deals with the reality that relationships are hard work as much if not more than rock and roll romance.

It's hard to listen to Tunnel today without trying to read into it the end of Springsteen's marriage to Julianne Phillips and his relationship with E Street vocalist Patti Scialfa that began soon after. His desire to use his own voice musically became clear; he would not rejoin the E Street Band in the studio until 2001. So could the same obvious read apply to his personal life? Probably yes and no, in a mixture unknown. The protagonists of Tunnel's songs doubt themselves, are losing their illusions about romantic love's durability and wondering if they will be up to the task of the work a real partnership will require. The couple in the title track find that they have paired up not only with each other's strengths, but also their fears and weaknesses.

None of those experiences are exclusive to couples that split, though, and as often as not those same protagonists end the song declaring their intention to try to go forward. All that said, though, if Phillips -- who in Carlin's book says nothing but good about Springsteen, in a brief written statement -- still listens to Bruce Springsteen albums, this is probably one that she skips.

For the rest of us, it's a selection of some of Springsteen's strongest lyrics, weighed down by artificial instrumentation and an unhappy combination of E Street musicians and synthesized drones. People sometimes refer to works of art as "great, but flawed," when they have something about them that doesn't measure up to the rest. Tunnel of Love feels more like it should be described as "flawed, but great." Its weaknesses are built into its structure, and it occasionally manages to overcome them.


philipvm said...

I don't think I disagree with you, but I'll add this: I remember being almost relieved when Tunnel of Love came out...because after the impossible pop brilliance of Born in the USA - and even more so the mammoth reception that album got - T of L felt...accessible. It was intimate in a way that nothing he'd done to that point had been, at least not in any sustained way.

Also? It had "One Step Up," which is pretty much one of the most beautiful sad songs I've ever heard.

I hear it now as a guy stepping back from the juggernaut - which is why I think it's maybe fitting that the band isn't really on it - and taking stock. Whether the music is great or not (and I'd argue it pretty much is), i SO appreciate its place in his continuum.

Friar said...

Yes -- some kind of retrenchment was necessary. The thinking that went into the words of "Tunnel" is probably some of the most reflective of his catalog, and produced some of my faves as well. It was less mythic and more "inside" than anything to that point, as you say.

If I ever get the chance to ask him, I'm curious to know if the scene in "Spare Parts" with the young mother at the river, with the sun bursting through, drew on the image of the heavens opening on Jesus in Luke 3:21-22 -- either way, that's one of the tops of my own playlist, along with the title track.

Wish he'd just broken down and hired some session folks like he eventually did for "Human Touch," though -- the drum machines and synths still set my teeth on edge.