November 09, 1987 12:00 PM

Bruce Springsteen

Any listener who rushes to Springsteen’s compellingly spare new album with a fan’s mindless embrace will meet a cold rebuff. “When I walk down the street people stop and stare/ Well, you’d think I might be thrilled but, baby, I don’t care,” he sings on the opener, Ain’t Got You. With almost nothing behind him but harmonica and acoustic guitar, he’s symbolically disarmed, human rather than superstar-size, but his scorching voice carries all the authority it needs to deliver his message. “I been around the world and all across the seven seas/ Been paid a king’s ransom for doin’ what comes naturally,” he continues. “But I’m still the biggest fool, honey, this world ever knew/ ‘Cause the only thing I ain’t got, baby, I ain’t got you.” Taken literally, “you” is the woman the song’s obscenely rich narrator is trying to win. On another level, maybe, it’s Springsteen’s simple but fiery reminder to himself and his audience that selling millions of records doesn’t change the facts of life. It’s “one step up and two steps back,” not only for the narrator of One Step Up but for all the characters on Tunnel of Love. There are no anthems here, no glory roads for the great E Street Band, not one Clarence demons sax riff. While the band does play, on half the cuts Springsteen handles all the instruments himself (and sounds particularly sharp on bass). In spirit the album is closest to 1982’s Nebraska. That album was about men grimly placing themselves within or beyond the law, seen as a universal, impervious force, a yardstick of character. Here the universal force is love, and people find they don’t often measure up to its demands. Loneliness is a constant. When Springsteen’s characters recognize how alone they are, they act stronger. There’s Bill Horton, the Cautious Man, sticking by his wife after some second thoughts; there’s Janey of Spare Parts, almost drowning her baby but then pawning her illusions (literally her wedding dress and ring) for some sustaining “good cold cash.” This is a passionate album. In All That Heaven Will Allow, Springsteen sings, “Now some may wanna die young man/ Young and gloriously.” He doesn’t. ” ‘Cause I got something on my mind/ That sets me straight and walkin’ proud/ And I want all the time/ All that heaven will allow.” So far, nobody can say he’s wasted the time. (Columbia)

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