The Ghost of Springsteen Past

For more than twenty years, Bruce Springsteen has been creating characters and pushing them through life: through high school bands and dimly lighted bars; through the back seats of Chevys; through factories, plants, and mills; through war-torn rice paddies and crowded city streets; through dead-end relationships and good, solid marriages. Now, on his new album, The Ghost of Tom Joad, Springsteen is pushing those characters into their graves.

Whether you hear it as The Ghost of Nebraska, a conceptual recasting of Woody Guthrie's Dust Bowl Ballads, or a retreat back to the character-based narratives of his most acclaimed efforts, Tom Joad is an unsettling album. It is of a piece with his uniformly impressive body of work A an aural throwback to the acoustic-based home recordings on 1982's Nebraska, it's also linked to the more desolate moments of his union with the E Street Band, especially on 1978's Darkness on the Edge of Town and The River, from 1980. More noticeably, Tom Joad finds Springsteen taking some determined steps away from the themes that linked 1992's simultaneously released albums Human Touch and Lucky Town. Along with 1987's Tunnel of Love, those two vastly underrated albums explored the complexities of adult romance, asking the questions that arise when emotional commitment becomes a reality and then examining the answers.

Those questions and answers produced some of Springsteen's finest music and reflected a kind of wisdom -- or at least an awareness -- that would've been unimaginable to the young, highway-bound romantic who splattered his heart across the grooves of 1975's Born to Run. Some remarkable albums have been made when artists pick apart the intricacies of love, lust, marriage, and trust: Bob Dylan's Blood on the Tracks and Marvin Gaye's Here My Dear each summon the rage and bewilderment of couples fighting it out in divorce court, while Elvis Costello's Imperial Bedroom and King of America artfully ponder the sexual politics that exist both before and after the ink has dried on the marriage license. However, only Springsteen's trio of records (Tunnel of Love, Human Touch, and Lucky Town) bothers to sort through love's befores, durings, and afters.

With Tom Joad, Springsteen casts aside such concerns and returns to the storytelling of past benchmarks such as "The River," "Johnny 99," and "Downbound Train," which means that the die-hard fans who were unmoved by his last three albums have reason to rejoice. But be forewarned: Tom Joad contains Springsteen's most dejected and desperate cast of losers to date: border kids turned drug runners ("Balboa Park"); shoe salesmen turned on-the-lam bank robbers ("Highway 25"); war vets turned suicidal assembly-line drones ("Youngstown"); migrant workers turned speeddealers("Sinaloa Cowboys"). They all are a part of Springsteen's past legacy, but on Tom Joad their sour lives have turned rancid. Their onetime belief that at the end of the day they will find a "Reason to Believe" has degenerated into resigned pessimism: My life is fucked, and there is nothing I can do about it.

The title cut pays obvious homage to the protagonist of John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath, the novel that also inspired the songs collected on Guthrie's magnificent 1964 album Dust Bowl Ballads. Springsteen has turned to those recordings at least twice before, with late-Eighties covers of "Vigilante Man" and "I Ain't Got No Home," and has written at least one song that bore the stamp of Guthrie's social concerns ("Seeds," from the Live/1975-1985 box). Tom Joad, however, is neither a tribute to a literary character nor a reiteration of a songwriter's determination to express the concerns of the battered underdog masses. Instead, it creates a doomed atmosphere much like that of the Louvin Brothers' bluegrass masterpiece Tragic Songs of Life, a quasi-concept album from 1956 in which death lingers over every song. In some tracks on Tragic Songs, the characters suffer only heartaches; in others, remorse and regret. But death reverberates throughout the set, palpable not only in the words of Charlie and Ira Louvin but also in their voices, which intertwine at times like a tangle of funeral bells emphasizing their forlorn messages.

Springsteen conjures that sound here by submerging himself in the misery of his characters' collective plight, burrowing so deeply into the sorrow-filled details of their lives that the only voice he can summon is a kind of beaten-dog moan -- as if the words hurt when they're coming out. It's a sound that recalls that of both the Louvins and another era, a time when prewar bluesmen such as Skip James, Charley Patton, and Robert Johnson would lose themselves in the torment of their tales and blur their words, creating a high, lonesome wail pulled from the nether recesses of the soul.

It is within those recesses that the occupants of Tom Joad dwell A a place where all hope has been shit-canned, where any glimmer of romance or relief is destroyed by hardship. Even the highways cherished by past Springsteen characters now contain only broken glass and gasoline (as the wayward salesman in "Highway 25" discovers), while the homeless in "The Ghost of Tom Joad" have been ground down to the point that they know there is no convenient escape route to be found along the endless gray ribbon.

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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