The album is one of Springsteen's least performed set of songs. The New York Times'Jon Pareles wrote that Tunnel of Love "turned inward, pondering love gone wrong. His first marriage, to the actress Julianne Phillips fell apart; he also decided to part ways with the E Street Band." "Brilliant Disguise" has been called "a heart wrenching song about never being really able to know someone," and "a song about the doubts and struggles of married life."
Members of the E Street Band were used sparingly on the album; Springsteen recorded most of the parts himself, often with drum machines and synthesizers. Although the album's liner notes list the E Street Band members under that name, Shore Fire Media, Springsteen's public relations firm, does not count it as an E Street Band album and 2002's The Rising was advertised as "his first studio album with the E Street Band since 'Born in the USA'" in 1984.
On the B-sides of vinyl and cassette singles, outtakes like "Lucky Man", "Two for the Road" and a vintage 1979 track, "Roulette" were included. On the mini-album that accompanied the 1988 tour, Springsteen included album cut "Tougher Than The Rest", but included another River outtake, "Be True" a rearranged, acoustic "Born To Run", and the Bob Dylan cover, "Chimes of Freedom".
Commercially the album went triple platinum in the US, with "Brilliant Disguise" being one of his biggest hit singles, peaking at #5 on the Billboard Hot 100, "Tunnel of Love" also making the Top 10, reaching #9, and "One Step Up" just falling short.
Irish filmmaker Meiert Avis directed the music videos for "Brilliant Disguise", "One Step Up", "Tougher Than the Rest", and "Tunnel of Love". The videos were shot on locations in New Jersey, including Asbury Park. The intensely personal "Brilliant Disguise" video broke new ground on MTV, being a single shot without edits. The video was nominated for four MTV Awards, including Video of the Year and, paradoxically, Best Editing.
Max Weinberg – drums on "All That Heaven Will Allow", "Two Faces" and "When You're Alone"; percussion on "Tougher Than the Rest", "Spare Parts", "Walk Like a Man", "Tunnel of Love", and "Brilliant Disguise"
^Cavicchi, Daniel (1998). Tramps Like Us: Music and Meaning Among Springsteen Fans. New York, Oxford: Oxford University Press, via Google Books limited preview. p. 32. ISBN0-19-511833-2.|accessdate= requires |url= (help)