Bruce Springsteen: The Ghost of Tom Joad

The New York Times, 1995-11-19, by: Jon Pareles
The voice is big and gutsy, with strength behind its rasp. It aches and it exults; it pleads, and it accuses. Behind it, the band sounds muscular and polished, with power chords chiming atop a big unswerving beat, propulsive but unhurried. Within the new songs are traces of old ones, half-remembered hits from the days of Phil Spector and Roy Orbison and the early British Invasion, evoking an unbroken rock heritage.

A decade ago, that could have described the music of Bruce Springsteen. But Springsteen has pulled back from his old, heroic sound; his new album, ``The Ghost of Tom Joad'' (Columbia), broods quietly over unemployment, frustration and short, wasted lives.

In some ways, it's like a hi-fi, West Coast sequel to ``Nebraska,'' the homemade album he released in 1982 between the grander statements of ``The River'' and ``Born in the U.S.A.'' It's also where his award-winning, AIDS-haunted ``Streets of Philadelphia'' has led, to a territory of sober rumination and chronic bummers. Yet many listeners rely on music to stoke a sense of hope, and the sound Springsteen and others honed was too uplifting to discard. The triumphal tone of Springsteen's old songs has been taken up by younger performers like Counting Crows, Hootie and the Blowfish and, most dramatically, Melissa Etheridge, whose new album, ``Your Little Secret'' (Island), follows her five-million-selling ``Yes I Am'' with more of the confident blare of mid-1980s rock. It's not a revival but a continuation of the arena-filling sound of the era, which backs up unironic earnestness with ringing major chords and proclaims it in singing that grows more vehement with every verse.

In the 1980s, songwriters often tied their fervor to causes or characters, like the troubled narrators in Springsteen's ``Hungry Heart'' or ``Born in the U.S.A.'' In the 1990s, however, people belt for their own romance, and the search for love becomes an all-consuming quest. ``I want to lose all your demons and go,'' Etheridge sings. ``I want to tear off your chains 'cause I know.'' Etheridge has entered a zone of rock that was briefly neglected, that of the arena anthem. While early-1990s rock bands turned to the self-lacerating introspection of grunge or the self-mocking frenzy of punk, Etheridge sang for people whose main anxiety came from unrequited love.

Grunge and punk reveal a crisis of masculinity for intelligent rockers, who can no longer take for granted the sense of dominance that used to come with maleness and a loud guitar. (The raw misogyny of so much hip-hop faces male insecurity with an exaggerated reaction in the opposite direction.) But the old rock swagger was up for grabs by a woman, and Etheridge grabbed it. Tina Turner and Joan Jett may be among her models, but so are male rockers: Springsteen, Rod Stewart (whose ``Maggie May'' has become a staple of Etheridge's live shows), Bob Seger, Bryan Adams and, on the new album, U2.

Etheridge and her co-producer, Hugh Padgham, have outdone their previous collaboration on ``Yes I Am.'' Etheridge's newer songs are more spacious and more memorable, with arrangements that hold her voice in reserve and then let her break through with redoubled urgency. And she homes in on the topic that makes her fans shout along: the way passion conquers reason. ``To hell with the consequence,'' she insists in ``I Want to Come Over,'' ``You told me you love me.''

``Yes I Am'' was tied to Etheridge's strummed acoustic guitar, keeping her close to the Midwestern rock of John Mellencamp. ``Your Little Secret'' features Mellencamp's brilliant drummer, Kenny Aronoff, and the album's first single, the title song, picks up Mellencamp's Rolling-Stones-in-Indiana guitar crunch. But the album continually looks over its shoulder at Springsteen - not his storytelling, but his music.

Etheridge and Padgham have studied the way Springsteen and his producer, Chuck Plotkin, use sustained keyboard chords as unobtrusive cushions. Songs take up Springsteen's marching tempos: the Phil Spector beat in ``I Want to Come Over,'' the expansive acoustic-guitar march in ``All the Way to Heaven'' and the thoughtful keyboard march in ``Nowhere to Go,'' which also borrows guitar from U2's ``With or Without You.'' U2's resolute pace and resonant guitars reappear in ``This War Is Over,'' as Etheridge sings, ``Melt all the chains in my soul.''

After ``Yes I Am'' was released, Etheridge acknowledged that she is a lesbian, but in her songs the object of desire remains ``you,'' with no description to restrict anybody's fantasy. She does sometimes drop a geographical detail, like ``the muddy waters of the mighty Mo'' (presumably the Missouri River) in ``Nowhere to Go.'' But Etheridge labors to stay generic, setting herself up as a middle-American Everygal, with details out of Gap ads. ``Just my jeans and my T-shirt and my blue Chevrolet,'' she sings in ``Nowhere to Go.'' Staying up-to-date, two songs bring up tattoos. Etheridge also refers indirectly to her new status as rock's most popular acknowledged lesbian. Under its cliches and its melodramatic buildup, ``I Could Have Been You'' replies to those who condemn homosexuals for choosing an immoral orientation: ``A path I didn't choose,'' Etheridge insists, adding, ``With hate you justify your crime/A crime compassion can erase.'' And in ``Shriner's Park,'' another slow-building march, the inevitable pronoun is ``you,'' but the scenario could easily be the story of teen-age lesbian trysts with a girlfriend who decided to stay straight.

Most of ``Your Little Secret'' sticks with common situations - temptation and seduction, cheating and losing - and Etheridge hurls herself into them, capturing obsession and infatuation in songs like ``An Unusual Kiss'' and ``I Want to Come Over.'' Her songs don't withdraw into desire; they make desire fill the whole world. But only in pop songs can people live exclusively for passion. Even when he was helping invent the arena anthem, Springsteen rarely devoted the style to simple love songs. He saw not just potential lovers but friendships, jobs, families. As he matured, he lost adolescent visions of heroic romance and started to consider how adults make it through everyday life.

On ``The Ghost of Tom Joad,'' Springsteen never raises his voice; he sings as if he's humbled by what he knows. He gently picks his acoustic guitar; keyboards and whispering drums waft in behind him, as the tunes rise a few notes, then fall to earth. It's Springsteen in Woody Guthrie mode, setting stories from newspaper articles and thinking about justice for the downtrodden. The title song, named after a character in John Steinbeck's ``The Grapes of Wrath,'' vows that Tom Joad's ghost will appear ``wherever there's somebody fightin' for a place to stand/Or a decent job or a helpin' hand.''

A few other songs also point fingers: ``Sir you tell me the world's changed,'' a furnace worker sings in ``Youngstown.'' ``Once I made you rich enough/Rich enough to forget my name.'' But only a few songs are heavy-handed. In most of them, Springsteen doesn't find lessons as Guthrie would; he just tells another tale of someone up against the insurmountable.

The songs are about hobos, ex-convicts and small-town bank robbers, as well as people new to Springsteen songs: immigrants from Mexico and Vietnam, contracting AIDS as hustlers or watching their shrimp boats burn. After a night with the woman he loves, a man in ``Dry Lightning'' is told, ``Ain't nobody can give nobody what they really need anyway.''

There's not much hope, but Springsteen sees the glimmer that makes people keep trying. Amid the dead-end stories, there's an anthem tucked on to the album: ``Across the Border'' is the prayer and vow of a man planning to migrate with his lover: ``I know love and fortune will be mine.'' Like the singer, we know they'll have to worry about more than the next night's rendezvous; along with the music, we're pulling for them anyway.