Solemn soliloquy

The Philadelphia Inquirer, 1995-11-19, by: Tom Moon
Bruce Springsteen revisits America's beleaguered in his new album ``The Ghost of Tom Joad.'' The stories are moving, but the music stands still.
Bruce Springsteen couldn't have picked a better time to release The Ghost of Tom Joad, the mostly solo collection of half-sung mutterings and sociopolitical allegories that arrives in stores Tuesday. His characters -- the forgotten and the displaced, the migrant laborers and the laid-off factory workers -- are the people most at risk in the current budget standoff. They were victims long before last week's shutdown of nonessential federal government operations. They're refugees of foreign wars, and veterans whose health was ruined while defending their country. They're folks who can't afford medical care. Kids who forsake school in search of work -- any work. Illegal immigrants who slip across the border to pick peaches.

Casting himself as Tom Joad, the Dust Bowl-era protagonist of John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath, Springsteen puts on his troubadour hat and sings solemn ballads about these decent people, whose diminished prospects make them prey to temptation and the lure of easy money. Sound familiar? It should. The 46-year-old rocker once known as The Boss has been to the Common Man Saloon before, watching the brawls and soaking up the local wisdom. There was the wrenching Nebraska in 1982 and parts of 1992's oft-ridiculed Human Touch and Lucky Town.

But on his 13th collection of new material, Springsteen firmly positions himself as a voice of the proletariat, whose mission is no less serious than Woody Guthrie's was in his day. Drawing parallels between the Depression and unemployment caused by the current bottom-line obsession of corporate America, Springsteen stands up and counts the injustices. ``Wherever there's a cop beatin' a guy,'' he announces on the first track, ``. . . where there's a fight 'gainst the blood and hatred in the air, look for me, Mom, I'll be there.'' It's a powerful stance, expressed in images as vivid and writerly as any Springsteen has ever recorded. It's also the sound of Bruce vamping.

For the first time in his career, Springsteen seems content to revisit a previous success -- the hauntingly austere Nebraska -- rather than venture into new territory. His commitment is not in question, nor is his maturity. The singer-guitarist understands complex problems have no easy answers, particularly when they involve the U.S.-Mexican border.

Trouble is, he hasn't discovered a compelling way to sing about these things. The Ghost of Tom Joad is a series of downcast narratives that ramble down one blue highway, then another, spitting out the usual road-as-wisdom, road-as-escape tropes like spent chewing tobacco on the median strip. Many of its 12 compositions follow the sing-song cadences that made Nebraska magnetic, but with only a few exceptions -- the luminous title track, ``Straight Time,'' ``Youngstown'' and ``The New Timer'' -- the songs lack even the basic characteristics of melody. Subtract the stories, and there's not much left.

After the mission statement of the title track, Springsteen follows the archetypical American migration westward to the ``land of opportunity.'' On ``Straight Time,'' he visits an ex-con who, impatient with honest work, takes up a career ``running hot cars.'' From there, he ambles down ``Highway 29''; visits ``Youngstown,'' where the mines are being shut down and the locals still feel the impact of Korea and Vietnam, and ends up in Southern California with a guy named Miguel who leaves a farming job to work ``cooking methamphetamine.''

Sometimes, he infuses his characters with a self-doubt and angst that bring an abstract emotion home. On the blue moan ``The New Timer,'' Springsteen follows a new arrival on Skid Row as he learns the ropes. After his mentor is killed, the rookie starts to think about his family: ``Now I wonder, does my son miss me, does he wonder where I am?'' In less than a verse, Springsteen gets beyond biographical details to capture the desolation that haunts the wanderer.

Such soul-searching moments are surprisingly rare. Tom Joad is concerned with stories first -- ideals are implied, metaphysics are explored in the margins. In this way, the new work diverges from Nebraska, which was more consistently introspective. (How closely is Tom Joad patterned on Nebraska? Track 5 on the earlier work, ``Highway Patrolman,'' is the account of a law-enforcement officer with conflicting loyalties to family and duty; Joad's Track 6, ``The Line,'' is about a border patrolman caught in a similar dilemma.)

The narrative gaps are made more conspicuous by the music, which is spare and sullen, and rarely claims the spotlight. Ever since 1984's Born in the U.S.A., Springsteen has specialized in compact songs with bite-size hooks and few twists and turns. This straightforward attack works for arena anthems, but it doesn't suit the ruminative themes of Tom Joad. On song after song, there's a depressing inevitability. Even inspired selections such as ``The New Timer'' and the violin-kissed ``Youngstown'' lumber rather than soar from one episode to another. Listening to these reserved odes, it's hard to believe they came from the author of wild, exuberant epics such as ``Jungleland.''

Springsteen could probably electrify these songs if he were really singing. But his constricted voice has less range than ever: He moves between three or four good mid-register notes, and often slips into a faux-Southern twang that feels dreadfully forced. On ``Galveston Bay'' and others, his halting delivery makes Dylan's rural affectations sound positively animated by comparison.

Throughout, Springsteen appears to be trying -- a bit too hard, perhaps -- to re-establish himself, to prove his poetry still has universal resonance. He is at a critical juncture: After the lukewarm reception to Human Touch and Lucky Town, he needed to do something radical, and with the beautifully recorded Tom Joad -- and the solo acoustic tour that will bring him to the Tower Theater on Dec. 8 and 9 -- he is working a different canvas.

Yet he never strays far. On ``Highway 29'' and the numbingly repetitive ``Across the Border,'' Springsteen sounds as trapped in his world as his characters are in theirs. Unable, or unwilling, to venture beyond chord sequences he's relied on for years, he's squandered important narratives on tuneless, unimaginative melodies. He's undercut subtle lyrics with too-blunt accompaniment, and lost the raw, emotional urgency that propelled his best works. He may get listeners to think about the ghost of Tom Joad and the widening gap between haves and have-nots, but if Springsteen keeps going like this, there may be another ghost to worry about.