Bruce Springsteen: The Ghost of Tom Joad

San Francisco Chronicle, 1995-11-19, by: Joel Selvin
In this folky solo album, Bruce Springsteen trains his novelistic eye on the homeless. It's a decidedly Steinbeckian take, as the title song suggests, on the human drama of life among the lost and lonely. But instead of his typical cast of losers and loners riding life's highway in chrome-covered cars, on ``The Ghost of Tom Joad'' Springsteen tells tales of Mexican immigrants and Vietnamese refugees.

Backed by little more than his spare acoustic guitar and occasional keyboards, Springsteen, who has a gift for extracting the universal elements in rather specific stories, gives the stark, downbeat songs a rich emotion. A weary troubador who identifies with the sorry fate of his protagonists, he wrings a desolate, dark quality out of his Guthrie-style performances, the plaintive bleating of a harmonica punctuating his telling.

Springsteen appeared at odds trying to fit into the contemporary music scene on his prior releases, the ``Human Touch'' and ``Lucky Town'' albums of 1992, and now he has retreated into a deeply personal work, an album so naked in its intimacy, so spare in its embellishments, it will outlive the evanescent affections of MTV and contemporary radio, which are unlikely to find room for such a poignant and daring recording. ``Highway 29'' is a black-and- white movie of a song about a bank robbery by a pair of accidental lovers that dwells on the emotional life of the fugitives, not on their deeds. ``Sinaloa Cowboys'' is a modern-day corrido about two Mexican brothers, trafficantes who come to a tragic end. ``The New Timer'' makes the fear and dejection of life on the road a palpable beat in the song's core.

``Across the Border,'' another rumination on the fates of Mexican immigrants, brings a light, forlorn touch of the cantina sound into the haunting narrative. ``The Ghost of Tom Joad'' extends the shadow of Steinbeck's ``Grapes of Wrath'' hero and the flicker of hope he came to represent into the homeless encampments of today, drawing a parallel between hard times of the '90s and the Great Depression.

Without making an outright political statement, Springsteen paints a daunting portrait of the human cost of a society out of control. His heroes are the victims of the system's failure. His literary skills have never been more evident, his compassion never more prominent in this moving parorama.