A never-ending Depression is Springsteen's latest focus

Asbury Park Press (?), 1995-11-19, by: Matty Karas
Bruce Springsteen writes about and relates to a new class of working poor on his latest album
BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN'S new album, "The Ghost of Tom Joad," has the feel of an American classic. The album, scheduled to arrive in stores Tuesday, is a bleak, terribly dry, relentlessly tuneless and richly detailed collection of short stories about Americans and (in a departure for Springsteen) American immigrants struggling through another depression. Or maybe, the album seems to suggest, it is the same Great Depression that Tom Joad rode out in John Steinbeck's "Grapes of Wrath." By melodic comparison, it makes "Nebraska," his last bleak and dry folk album, seem like a collection of Schubert lieders.

It's the most radical-left album a major artist has made in years, with an angry, focused, serious style Woody Guthrie would be proud of. One of its songs, "Youngstown," takes the daring stance -- at least for a person who is one of the biggest-selling stars in the corporate pop machine -- of comparing corporation bosses directly to Hitler. Another, "Galveston Bay," demands his listeners offer the same sympathy to Vietnamese veterans of the Vietnam War that his oft-misunderstood 1984 hit "Born in the U.S.A." demanded for American veterans.

"Tom Joad" is also the most folklike album in recent memory from a major rock artist. Springsteen's picked, almost never strummed, acoustic guitar is supported only by a low, often unnoticeable bed of sustained keyboard chords and, occasionally, the Appalachian mountain cries of a fiddle and a pedal steel guitar. Springsteen splits the keyboard parts with former E Street Band member Danny Federici, and E Street bassist Garry Tallent shows up for a couple of muted cameos.

"Tom Joad" features stories and characters, and though their tales of economic hardships, hopeless futures and violent ends are nearly identical to those of the characters on "Nebraska," they themselves are not. Several of them are Mexican, and they are saluted by the singer with perfectly rolled R's and subtle Spanish guitar rhythms, as if he has scouted the barrios of his new hometown, Los Angeles, and found a new class of working poor people to connect with and write about.

But while "The Ghost of Tom Joad" is both quintessentially American and quintessentially '90s in its honesty and authenticity, you can be too dry, too rootsy, too down-home, and Bruce Springsteen has achieved it all here. The album has the studied backwoods feel of an old Folkways field recording but none of the humor and joy of the musicianship on the best of those records. It has the resigned, desperate mood of a me-and-the-devil blues record, without even the sense that something small or something temporary was gained in that deal with the devil. It's art that absolutely refuses to transcend.

Springsteen's voice doesn't rise, and his guitar, locked into an album-length antigroove of colorless arpeggios, offers no musical ornamentation. There are hardly any musical interludes nor even fadeouts and song outros. Usually, after the last line of the last verse, the music comes to a quick, cold end or, as in "Balboa Park," just sort of dribbles off.

With the exception of two minor-key numbers, there is remarkably little musical variation. Most songs recall the slower numbers on "Nebraska" with their two or three major chords and flat melody lines; the words to the title song of the earlier record would fit perfectly over the music of the new one's modern Dust-Bowl travelogue "The New Timer."

"Nebraska," for all its bleakness, had an upbeat blues shuffle ("Open All Night"), a strummed semipop song ("Atlantic City") and, in even its most quiet songs, hotly recorded vocal tracks that found passion in desperation. The narrators on that album often seemed to not understand the forces that had led them to where they were. Those on "Tom Joad" are much more clear about causes and effects -- Le Bin Son, who is afforded the unique pleasure of a relatively happy ending in "Galveston Bay," almost becomes a victim of misguided patriots.

"Across the Border," which faintly echoes John Hiatt's "Across the Borderline" and features a backing vocat they're among the only moments where Springsteen risks rising above his good intentions.