‘Lucky Town’ Turns 25: Time to Rethink Bruce Springsteen’s Most Underrated Gem

At first dismissed by fans as ‘too happy,’ the overlooked early-’90s Boss effort ‘Lucky Town’ is a well-polished collection of songs about love and all its messy but beautiful complications.

via Amazon

Few musicians have had as long a streak of rock classics as Bruce Springsteen.

Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J. is the Dylanesque debut that spawned some of the Boss’s signature songs; The Wild, the Innocent, & the E Street Shuffle is a hallowed exercise in manic party music; Born to Run is among the greatest rock records ever; so is Darkness on the Edge of Town; The River is a double-disc rock milestone; Nebraska practically invented the lo-fi rock genre; Born in the U.S.A. is what catapulted Bruce to pop stardom; and Tunnel of Love was his epochal divorce record.

But too often overlooked was his ninth record: Lucky Town.

It was released on March 31, 1992, alongside Human Touch, a more middling collection of peppy E Street-less tunes that is often considered Springsteen’s worst effort. (Human Touch is often considered the ninth album because it was recorded first; but since they were put out on the same day, it’s fair game to consider one or the other the “ninth.”)

Despite getting mostly positive reviews, Lucky Town is overlooked by Bruce himself, getting barely a mention in his epic 2016 memoir Born to Run. Songs from the album have received few live performances since the E Street Band reunited in 1999.

Among the likeliest explanations for Lucky Town’s obscurity among Springsteen fans are that it was his first post-E Street Band record; that the only E Streeters present on the record were Patti Scialfa and keyboardist Roy Bittan; that the album artwork is pretty embarrassing; and, perhaps most of all, that the autobiographical LP was too goddamn happy.

“I tried [writing happy songs] in the early ‘90s and it didn’t work,” Bruce admitted during his Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction. “The public didn’t like it.”

Sure, it may not have the bubbling social and emotional angst or operatics of his classics, but Lucky Town represented a refreshing and momentous change of pace for Springsteen. As a married man now with two kids (and a third one coming a few years later), a more domestic Bruce here demonstrated a truly profound understanding of the double-edged power of love: its life-changing magic and the ever-present fear of losing it.

The album opens with the snare-shot of its best track and lead single “Better Days,” a pristine rock spiritual about Bruce’s own redemption through his love for Patti. (She appears prominently in the song, singing shimmering, gospel-like backup vocals along with Lisa Lowell and future E Street fixture Soozie Tyrell.)

Even though the lyrics are tender and introspective, Springsteen sings with a ferocity that sounds at times like a raging shout—the guitars and drums growl with the intensity of “Adam Raised a Cain” (off Darkness), and the bass (provided by a then-little-known sessions musician named Randy Jackson) tosses and turns like it's about to come off the rails.

And yet, this is unequivocally a love song. “These are better days, baby / There’s better days shining through,” he sings in the irresistible chorus. “These are better days, baby / Better days with a girl like you.”

It’s a masterful flipping of Springsteen’s own tried-and-true script of setting angst-ridden lyrics to rejoiceful melodies (see “Born in the U.S.A.”). The song practically begs for anthemic live performances, and yet it’s only been played on-stage 20 times since the conclusion of his 1992-93 world tour.

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Following that is the album’s title track and fourth single “Lucky Town,” about the redemptive power of tearing down loose ends to rebuild your life. The slide guitars and introduction of Bruce’s now-ubiquitous faux-Okie accent preview what’s to come with 1995’s The Ghost of Tom Joad; but for that moment, the song stood as a straight-shooting pop tune about reclamation. “When it comes to luck, you make your own,” he drawls in the final verse. “Tonight I got dirt on my hands but I’m building me a new home.”

“Local Hero,” the third track, churns along like a stadium-shaking heartland rocker, but is, perhaps ironically, a clever commentary on Springsteen’s discomfort with his own celebrity status. He tells the story of seeing a portrait of himself at a local store and the brief alienation from his true self that results. And once again, he sings about being redeemed from that darkness by the humility and grace of those closest to him.

Of all the songs from Lucky Town, the one that has experienced the longest shelf life is “If I Should Fall Behind,” a heartrending ballad about the core promise of devoted relationships: when one person falls behind, the other person shall lift them up. Till death do you part.

The gorgeous lyrics read like that of a folk standard: “Now there’s a beautiful river in the valley ahead / There ‘neath the oak’s bough, soon we will be wed / Should we lose each other in the shadow of the evening trees / I’ll wait for you / Should I fall behind / Wait for me.”

Because of its lyrical timelessness, the song has been reincarnated in many forms by Springsteen: as a minimalist hymn about human connection during the E Street Reunion tour and shortly after 9/11; a waltz-tempo folk song on the 2006 Seeger Sessions tour; and as an oft-used acoustic tribute to fallen soldiers.

As a master of peaks and valleys, Springsteen placed directly after “If I Should Fall Behind” the audaciously jangly pop song “Leap of Faith.” Going beyond the redemptive power of love explored on the rest of the album, here Bruce tackles the redemptive power of sex and… the female anatomy.

“Now your legs were heaven / Your breasts were the altar / Your body was the holy land,” he croons. “You shouted ‘jump’ but my heart faltered / You laughed and said ‘Baby, don’t you understand?’”

Taking it up a notch in the bridge, Springsteen delivers a slightly provocative metaphor about doing the nasty: “Now you were the Red Sea / I was Moses / I kissed you and slipped into a bed of roses / The waters parted and love rushed inside / I was Jesus’ son, yeah, sanctified.”

The single’s shimmying music video gave worldwide audiences a glimpse of Bruce (in an embarrassingly frilly pirate shirt-and-vest combo) giddily performing with a backing group derisively known to diehards as “The Other Band” (fun fact: that touring act included Carol Dennis, the “secret” second wife of Bob Dylan).

While maintaining the up-tempo vibe of the album’s first five tracks, the back half dwells upon the aforementioned flip-side of everlasting love: its fragility.

On “The Big Muddy,” Bruce tackles lust and greed as love’s own Achilles’ heel. “Waist deep in the big muddy,” he howls in the chorus, cribbing the title of a Pete Seeger song of the same name. “How beautiful the river flows and the birds they sing,” he juxtaposes with an admission of imperfection: “But you and I we’re messier things.”

Remove the synth and polished production, and throw in the hiss of a 4-track cassette recorder, and “The Big Muddy” could easily have fit on Nebraska alongside such stark examinations of flawed human nature as “State Trooper” or “Highway Patrolman.”

Similarly, the album’s penultimate track, “Souls of the Departed,” takes on darker subject matter near and dear to Springsteen’s heart: the wars both at home and in the desert abroad. As a spiritual successor to “Born in the U.S.A,” the song is a snarling piece of social commentary that weaves between lamenting the Gulf War and the senseless violence taking place in Compton, just miles from his then-mansion in the Hollywood Hills.

In one of the final verses, Springsteen neatly reflects upon his own life to tie this anti-war song back to the album’s dominant theme of love as a double-edged sword. “Tonight as I tuck my own son in bed,” he intones, “All I can think of is what if it would’ve been him instead / I want to build me a wall so high nothing can burn it down / Right here on my own piece of dirty ground.”

Further contemplating his high-society standing and the innate fear that it could all come crumbling down, Springsteen confesses on “My Beautiful Reward,” the album’s closer, how he “sought gold and diamond rings, my own drug to ease the pain that living brings.” He hints at a feeling of imposter syndrome—that his success and fame belie the truth that he’s really just like “a drunk on a barroom floor”—but is lifted up to the sky, taking on the body of a soaring bird, because of his understanding wife’s love.

It’s a beautiful admission of having essentially “married up”—one that is equally expressed in “Book of Dreams,” the understated retelling of their wedding. “Tonight I’m drinkin’ in the forgiveness this life provides,” he toasts Patti, basking in his admiration for everything she represents. “The scars we carry remain / but the pain slips away, it seems / Oh, won’t you, baby, be in my book of dreams?”

But the album’s back half is bolstered the most by “Living Proof,” the song that spawned this entire album. During the Human Touch sessions, Springsteen felt moved to write this song about his first child Evan’s birth—so moved, in fact, that he ended up with all ten of Lucky Town’s tracks.

Continuing the stomping rock ‘n’ roll and near-shouted vocals of “Better Days,” the song juxtaposes the angst of knowing deep down he’s a troubled, self-destructive man with the sheer beauty of “this boy sleepin’ in our bed.” He commends Patti for how she “shot through my anger and rage / To show me my prison was just an open cage / There were no keys, no guards / Just one frightened man and some old shadows for bars.”

And as he holds his wife and baby boy tightly in bed—“Just a close band of happy thieves”—he cracks a smile, likely shedding a tear as he realizes: “Looking for a little bit of God’s mercy / I found living proof.”

The truth is, putting aside the fact that most of its songs were perhaps too earnestly autobiographical for his audience at the time, Lucky Town is in some ways no different than many of Bruce’s classic full-lengths.

This isn’t some doe-eyed, lovey-dovey record, despite Springsteen’s self-deprecating “too happy” jab. It’s a big-hearted exploration of love and its many complications—much like The River, which spawned many of Bruce’s live staples, and was also in part about love’s many obligations. Shouldn’t Lucky Town be appreciated at least half as much, or have its songs performed live more often?

As Bruce’s core audience has long grown up and experienced their own versions of the jubilation they cynically dismissed in the ’90s, now is the time to hail it as among the great works of his career.