Work too hard at something and it starts to sound forced. Case in point, Bruce Springsteen or, more specifically, the photos of him that adorn his two new, simultaneously released albums, Lucky Town (Columbia) and Human Touch (Columbia). Gone is the clean-cut Mr. Brawny of the '80s, replaced by his '70s gypsy greaser look, complete with silver chains and facial scruff. Perhaps Springsteen is trying to convince himself that behind his formidable bank account and fame, he is still that same rock & roll party animal and boardwalk poet. But he simply isn't, and nothing drives home that point more than the records themselves. Strained and verbose, both Lucky Town and Human Touch are his most confused albums since his 1973 debut. In trying to follow up the emotional and musical resonance of 1987's bravely folkish Tunnel of Love, on which he stripped the veneer from his first marriage, Springsteen takes one step up. But his burning desire to still rock the stadiums takes him two frustrating steps back.
Springsteen grew enormously popular in the '80s, but more importantly, he got better no small feat. Starting in 1980 with The River and continuing through his multiplatinum 1984 breakthrough, Born in the U.S.A., he mastered the art of football-field rock & roll. Stripped of its earlier bombastic tendencies, his music became lean and crisp (despite the occasional clubfootedness of the E Street Band). Meanwhile, his songwriting grew richer as he touched on new, more subtle emotions (the sarcasm of ''Glory Days'') and used more evocative imagery (waking up in a cold house as a metaphor for a marital strain in Tunnel's ''One Step Up''). Springsteen refined his art with age; his youthful excesses just burned off.
But on his new albums, he suddenly seems flabby again, and you first hear it in his music. The 14-track (and more leaden) Human Touch is beefier and pumped up, with heavier R&B accents; on it, Springsteen, lone E Street holdover Roy Bittan, and some studio pros including, God help him, the drummer from the characterless session band Toto sound like they're trying to re-create the carnival rock of the E Streeters. Lucky Town, 10 songs taped in his home studio (on almost all of them Springsteen plays every instrument except drums), is comparatively more intimate, with delicate acoustic tracks, nods to folk rock and twang, and a female backup trio (including wife Patti Scialfa) for a refreshing white-gospel edge.
But for a man who reveled in being known as the Boss, the albums feel, ironically, as if he's just punching the clock. The arrangements are by and large choppy, an unfocused blur of clattering guitars and faceless rhythm sections. (Even Bittan's normally sharp piano sounds muddled.) When the songs stay with you, it's only because they sound familiar: The chugging synths of ''Human Touch'' (one of the album's first two singles) recall ''Dancing in the Dark,'' and songs like ''Real Man'' and ''Man's Job'' are shockingly generic they might as well be Southside Johnny outtakes. It's as though Springsteen's ability to craft a good record has gone the way of his working-class image.
On their own, these problems would not be insurmountable. Springsteen's music, rooted in soul, folk, and country, has always been deeply conservative, and he's hampered himself before with recycled melodies and lumpy production. Yet he's always made up for that with passion, conviction, and personal insight. These albums should have been no exception. In the five years since Tunnel of Love, Springsteen divorced and remarried, uprooted to L.A., canned his E Street Band, and had two children with his new spouse. Here was a perfect opportunity to retool his music and explain the dramatic changes in his life. Instead he wrote lyrics with sentiments as generalized as his new music: Life is ''a cold hard ride'' in ''the real world,'' and ''it takes a leap of faith to get things going/In your heart you must trust.'' Like deep, Bruce. The lyrics of ''Real Man,'' ''All or Nothin' at All,'' and ''Roll of the Dice'' are as banal as their titles.
Springsteen doesn't completely avoid the topic of his new home life. In Lucky Town's ''Book of Dreams,'' he pensively recalls his wedding day and, in ''Living Proof,'' reflects on the birth of his son (''it was all the beauty I could take''). On Human Touch, the deadpan ''57 Channels (and Nothin' On)'' finds him buying a satellite dish for his ''bourgeois house in the Hollywood hills'' and then shooting the tube in honor of Elvis. In the low-life garage blues of ''Souls of the Departed,'' he ponders the horrors in the Compton ghetto outside L.A. and in the postwar Persian Gulf, and yearns to build a wall around his home to protect his young son. In songs like those, Springsteen hints at what he could have done: made indelible statements about how it feels to be a fortysomething rock star geographically and emotionally removed from both his old haunts and the world at large. More often, though, he retreats to the most mundane of Chuck Berry-derived guitar licks, to prehistoric me-man, you-woman lust songs. (If the albums have a recurring theme, it's love as salvation, which sounds pat and somewhat naive.)
Both albums have moments that will surely light up the radio dial the grunge twang of ''Lucky Town,'' the forlorn, Guthrie-esque ''My Beautiful Reward,'' the reach-for-the-sky power of ''Real World.'' And Springsteen's voice has rarely sounded better as it moves from a full-throttled roar to a field- holler whoop and then to a hushed drawl. Yet the songs that linger after the records end are the simplest ones. Human Touch closes with a lullaby to his son a sweet, acoustic rendition of the traditional folk song ''Pony Boy,'' with Scialfa singing harmony. It feels effortless because it seems truer to the person Springsteen has become a thoughtful, middle-aged singer-songwriter and wealthy rock star. Whether he likes it or not, the waves of the Jersey Shore are lapping far, far away, and there's no point in going back. Human Touch: B- Lucky Town: B