If there was a theme song for that sweet, cursed emotion named romantic doubt, this would be it. Tunnel of Love as a whole is a masterfully intimate album full of great tracks, but ‘One Step Up’ is the standout track.
It’s one long lament of a man whose marriage, much like Springsteen’s was at the time, is on the rocks: our protagonist leaves his loveless home after a fight, to take refuge at a motel. Alone in a bar, he broods on the cold house he has just left, and songless birds, and silent church bells. Same mistakes were made, same words exchanged, and now he is wryly, if ultimately dismissively, contemplating a hint of an affair. All the while there is the recognition that he has let himself, and his wife, down; that his semi-voluntary exile into the night is not new, and it’s down to him more than anything. His self-loathing is endearingly direct – ‘when I look at myself I don’t see / the man I wanted to be / Somewhere along the line I slipped off track / Movin’ one step up and two steps back’, yet Springsteen ends with an elusive, hopeful note: ‘Last night I dreamed I held you in my arms / The music was never-ending / we danced as the evening sky faded to black…’ We never find out if our anti-hero goes back to his wife, even though we are pretty sure where his heart lies. Hidden under the steadiest and sweetest of arpeggios is one of the best breakup songs in pop history: a pitiful story of a man who can’t get over himself to stay, and is honest enough to know it. Like the greatest heartaches, the pain and pity in ‘One Step Up’ is directed at the self: Springsteen tellingly makes no explicit mention of the protagonist’s other half. It’s his fault and suffering alone. From a male perspective, the mood created by the bittersweet melody and plaintive lyrics is note-perfect, hitting just the right mixture of foolish longing and resigned angst.
When he wrote the song, Springsteen’s marriage to actress Julianne Phillips was disintegrating. His true love, Patti Scialfa, was the female vocal in his E Street Band and thus right under his nose, a fact that somehow makes ‘One Step Up’ more poignant. Tunnel of Love is an album full of great love songs like ‘Tougher Than The Rest’, ‘All That The Heaven Will Allow’ and ‘Valentine’s Day’, which are all more optimistic takes on his relationship. Incidentally, the linked video for ‘Tougher Than The Rest’ – the best pure love song that Springsteen has written – is notable for the electrifying look that Scialfa gives him – gives me chills every time.