The Ghost of Springsteen Past

The Ghost of Tom Joad is without doubt a dark spirit, its songs a relentless barrage of harsh realities and bitter discoveries. Expressed for nearly an hour in whispered vocals, with Springsteen's minimal acoustic guitar, his sparse keyboards, and less-than-skeletal arrangements, the effect can be numbing. When Springsteen entered similar terrain on Nebraska, the pain was accompanied by a diverse range of sounds: rockabilly shouts and field-chant hollers, hot-wired Chuck Berry guitar and the rolling chords and bouncing melodies of primo Guthrie and the best early Dylan.

Tom Joad, in contrast, offers only an acoustic-based murk, with the guitar and keyboard supplemented by, among others, former E Streeters Danny Federici on piano and Gary Tallent on bass. The racket has no doubt been kept at a minimum to emphasize the lyrics. The results at times are chilling; if you're looking for an album that can turn a sunny afternoon into a nail-chomping midnight in Hell, welcome aboard. What's even more chilling, though, is how little life there is on Tom Joad, both musically and thematically. After sorting through these grisly tales, it's impossible not to think back about eighteen years to "Badlands," the opening salvo from Darkness on the Edge of Town. That song paints a picture that's only slightly less grim than the portraits on Tom Joad, yet its protagonist surveys the wreckage and nevertheless maintains that "it ain't no sin to be glad you're alive."

That wasn't necessarily a declaration of optimism or endurance, but simply a statement of personal fact. Granted, that statement was made in 1978, when Springsteen was just shy of 30. Now pushing 50, he is not the man he used to be; that should be obvious to anyone who's even cursorily followed his music. Still, hearing him now say, in so many words, that it is a sin to be alive isn't just discouraging -- it's depressing.

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