Border Music

Time, 1995-12-04, by: Christopher John Farley
In a spare new album, Bruce is at his bleakest and best
Bruce Springsteen's nickname--"the Boss"--never fit. True, "the Worker" doesn't have quite the same ring to it, but ever since Springsteen burst on the music scene in the 1970s, his work has focused not on people who sign paychecks but on the guys and gals who have to make them stretch for a whole week. In the past few years, however, Springsteen has lost touch with his proletarian passions. Many of his most recent songs, such as Brilliant Disguise, 57 Channels (and Nothin' On) and Better Days, are more concerned with Springsteen's nouveau-riche guilt than with the clock-punchin', Roseanne-lovin' set.

If his new CD, The Ghost of Tom Joad, is his best in years, it's because Springsteen has turned his attention once again to the downtrodden. The songs on the new album are about desperate lives along the Mexican-American border. Each is like a short story; several unwind without choruses. On Sinaloa Cowboys, Springsteen sings of two illegal immigrants who fall in with drug traffickers (he manages to rhyme "ravine" and "methamphetamine"). His sound--somewhere between Springsteen's stark Nebraska album and his serenely wrenching hit Streets of Philadelphia--is spare, featuring little instrumentation beyond an acoustic guitar, harmonica and keyboard. In the title song, Springsteen summons the spirit of the hero of John Steinbeck's famous novel about migrant workers, The Grapes of Wrath: "I'm sittin' down here in the campfire light/ With the ghost of old Tom Joad." This album too has the power to haunt.