When Bruce Springsteen was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1999, New Jersey's biggest rock star had a career's worth of musical triumphs to make mention of in his obligatory thank-you speech.
That is, until he got to Human Touch and Lucky Town, the two albums he released on the same day in 1992.
"I tried writing happy songs in the early '90s," the Boss deadpanned. "It didn't work. The public didn't like it."
Indeed they didn't. The low esteem in which Springsteen's 1990s output without the E Street Band is held by his otherwise intensely loyal fan base – and, seemingly, the artist himself – is demonstrated nightly by his Springsteen on Broadway set list.
On most nights, when he performs the altogether excellent sold-out-through-December autobiographical show at the Walter Kerr Theatre in Manhattan – for which he will receive a special Tony Award on June 10 – Springsteen ignores his 1990s output entirely.
The rare exceptions are when Springsteen's wife, Patti Scialfa, can't be there to sing duets on "Tougher Than the Rest" and "Brilliant Disguise," the two terrific love songs pulled from 1987's Tunnel of Love. Then he subs in the title cut from 1995's The Ghost of Tom Joad, as well as "Long Time Comin'" from 2005's Devils & Dust.
Although Springsteen largely leaves the decade out of his adapted-for-the-theater life story, he's also making that flawed but fascinating period freshly available for reexamination with the release of The Album Collection Vol. 2, 1987-1996 (Columbia ***). What the set makes clear is that his songwriting skills were still intact, but that he lost his connection with his audience and the persona it believed in.
The vinyl-only limited-edition boxed set starts with Tunnel, the emotionally fraught, deeply personal collection that was the final unqualified success in the eight-album winning streak with which Springsteen began his career, starting with Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J. in 1973.
From there, things get problematic. Springsteen fired the E Street Band after the Tunnel of Love tour, during which he and Scialfa were spotted in their skivvies on a balcony in Rome. He happened to still be married at the time to Julianne Phillips, the actress with whom he tied the knot in 1985.
When they were released in 1992, Human Touch and Lucky Town were the first creative missives heard from a rebooted Boss, who'd married Scialfa the year before and fled Jersey for Los Angeles.
Seeking a fresh start, he hired studio musicians for Human Touch, including bassist Randy Jackson of future American Idol renown. Keyboard player Roy Bittan was the only E Streeter invited.
Lucky Town, by contrast, was essentially a solo collection that sometimes rocked, with Springsteen playing everything but drums. And that was followed by The Ghost of Tom Joad, a severe, whispery set whose title song was inspired by John Ford's film adaptation of John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath.
Those four albums form the core of the box. In addition, there's the live Chimes of Freedom EP from 1988 and Blood Brothers EP from 1996 that briefly brought the E Streeters back together. Also included is MTV Plugged, the 1992 double live album that documents the substitute band put together in lieu of E Street.
First, a word about the box itself. It's expensive. Amazon is selling it for a whopping $208.19, in part because there's so much vinyl involved, 10 LPs in total. Both Human Touch and Lucky Town are presented on two LPs each "to maximize audio quality." That's a pain, as you're often listening to three songs before having to get up and flip the dang 150-gram disc over again. It's a for-true-believers-only purchase.
Buying the hefty box, however, is not a prerequisite for reassessing Springsteen's post-Born in the U.S.A., pre-The Rising output, however. All of the music is also available on CD or iTunes or the major streaming services.
And what becomes clear from listening is that Springsteen never lost his songwriting skills during the period.
There were some real turkeys, like Human Touch's "57 Channels (And Nothin' On)," a ham-handed attempt to say something profound about alienation in an overloaded home entertainment world that's puny and quaint in retrospect.
And there was too much mediocrity. That includes such well-intentioned but lumbering Human tracks as "Man's Job" and "Real Man" and the "happy" Lucky Town songs such as "Leap of Faith," and "Better Days."
On the latter, Springsteen took pains to explain how he got over his self-loathing: "It's a sad man, my friend, who's living in his own skin and can't stand the company." But no matter how he strove, he couldn't make grown-up contentment deliver the ecstatic release of rolling down the windows and letting the wind blow back your hair.
There are good, well-constructed songs on both albums, though, like Lucky Town's haunting "Souls of the Departed" and the lovely "If I Should Fall Behind." Along with the sturdy, tender title cut (one of the few songs of the period Sprinsgsteen occasionally plays in his three-hour-plus live shows), there are a couple of Human gems in the bluesy "Cross My Heart" and in the rocking warning to commitment-phobes "All or Nothin' at All."
The quality of some of those tunes leads Springsteen apologists to argue that nothing would have gone awry if he had just condensed two albums into one.
But that's not the problem. The trouble is that Springsteen's art had always been animated by a sense of community. That's been true whether it's meant finding strength in the bond with his audience that still fills arenas and Broadway theaters, or in creating albums like Darkness on the Edge of Town and Nebraska that depicted desperate, isolated characters without a source of pride or human connection.
Springsteen's art lost its power in the early 1990s because he lost touch with that community, and with himself. When performing the title cut from Darkness, as he does on the Plugged album, he started altering a lyric — "I lost my money and I lost my wife" — so it was heard as "I lost my faith when I lost my wife."
Cutting himself off from the close-knit Central Jersey world that he recreates so lovingly in his Born to Run memoir and Springsteen on Broadway, the working-class hero had isolated himself, as he sings in "57 Channels," in "a bourgeois house in the Hollywood hills with a trunkload of hundred-thousand-dollar bills."
Springsteen knew he was in creative trouble, but he didn't know what to do about it. Trying something new, working with different musicians, and then hitting the road seemed like a good idea.
He failed in that neither Lucky Town nor Human Touch was a true departure. Springsteen has never been an experimenter: Instead, he builds on traditions established by cherished forebears, and in the best-case scenarios creates work that resonates with eloquence.
But with the opportunity to do things differently, Springsteen instead wound up doing something pretty much the same as always, only with different people. The results didn't totally suck – and the band that he assembled, starting with top-notch drummer Zach Alford, was far from terrible.
Fans, however, took the tour to be a betrayal, wondering why their beloved E Streeters had to be sacrificed for ringers that their leader failed to steer in a genuinely fresh direction.
Springsteen didn't suffer too bad. "Streets of Philadelphia," his 1995 dirge written for Jonathan Demme's AIDS drama Philadelphia won an Oscar and a Grammy.
And Tom Joad, whose title song was later covered by Rage Against the Machine, also features its share of solid songs, like "Youngstown" and "Galveston Bay," the latter of which Adam Granduciel of the War on Drugs told me last year he listened to on repeat during the making of the Grammy-winning A Deeper Understanding.
Tom Joad can be a tough go: It feels journalistic rather than lived-in, and seems designed to be heard by only one listener at a time. But many of its immigrant songs are germane to our current political moment, as they set dramas about border crossings in motion and question what it means to be American.