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Bruce Springsteen
 The Ghost of Tom Joad, Columbia CD or LP CK 67484

 Springsteen as balladeer

Normally an album by Bruce Springsteen, former king of arena rock, would not be Jelly material. But  The Ghost of Tom Joad is a quiet, restrained folk effort, with nary a glockenspiel in sight. The twelve songs are all simple works, generally just a vocal with acoustic guitar accompaniment. Occasionally, the background is filled by a synthesizer wash and a harmonica, or perhaps a violin adds emphasis, but the overwhelming feeling is of stark simplicity. All the songs are ballads in the truest sense-tales of immigrants, scoundrels, and assorted losers, mostly told in the third person. There's the Vietnamese refugee Le Bin Son scraping out a living on a fishing boat in Galveston Bay, Miguel and Louis moving from the migrant orchards to the lure of quick money working in a methamphetamine factory, and the ex-con Charlie giving up his job at the rendering plant, sawing off a shotgun and dreaming of the big score. Springsteen's geographic center has shifted over the years from the rust belt to the sun belt, where there are a new set of stories to tell.

The obvious comparison is with  Nebraska, Springsteen's often neglected 1982 solo album, incongruously bisecting a commercial career trajectory heading from  The River to  Born in the USA. Careful listening reveals a world of difference between the two, each with its own strength and weakness.  Nebraska was a set of demo tapes that Springsteen failed to successfully adapt to the studio. With a few overdubs, the four-track masters were released as the album. Tom Joad on the other hand is a fully realized studio work, the sound clean and sparse. Springsteen's voice on  Nebraska is strained, often cracking as the raw tales spill out. The overall effect is either touching or histrionic, depending on your interpretation. Perhaps because it was intended as the starting point for a studio session, there's quite a bit of variety on  Nebraska, with a typical mix of uptempo and slower tunes. The vocals on  Tom Joad are much more controlled, more detached and ultimately more disturbing, and the mood more single-minded.

The sparseness of the album reveals it biggest weakness-a monotonic approach with barely existent melodies.  The Ghost of Tom Joad is not background music. The melodies are so thin they dissolve away leaving only the stark songs beneath. But after you learn the stories, each listening becomes a re-telling of an oral history that is folk music at its best. Two rays of hope reflect from  Tom Joad's mirrored surface. "Dry Lightning" is a pretty cowboy love song, and "Across the Border" tells the hopeful dreams of a man soon to sneak into the U.S. The dream is just that, however, and "Balboa Park" tells of the grim reality that awaits in San Diego's promised land.

It's impossible to write about an album like this without at least a quick nod to the politics behind it. On his last album, Springsteen was worried about being a rich man in a poor man's shirt . But it would seem the Republican revolution has prompted his return to the chronicling the lives of the neglected, much as  Nebraska replied to the Reagan revolution. Tom Joad, of course, was the central character in  The Grapes of Wrath, but the album credits John Ford's sanitized agitprop movie rather than Steinbeck's novel as the primary inspiration. The title track movingly puts to music Henry Fonda's famous soliloquy about "anywhere there's a cop beating a man" - with its eerie echoes of modern Los Angeles.

Springsteen has been quoted as saying he wants to follow Neil Young's example and record different types of albums with different bands in the coming years.  The Ghost of Tom Joad is a keeper, and let's hope his future explorations prove as fruitful. --Bill Kuhn

 Glenn Brooks says... Columbia has seen fit to release  The Ghost of Tom Joad on LP as well as CD. I listened to both, and found the LP conveys a somewhat better sense of the space surrounding Springsteen and the instruments, and does a much better job at capturing low level sounds, such as Springsteen's unvoiced exhalations at the end of a phrase. But the vinyl itself is not high quality, so you have to put up with a bit of surface noise.

production notes & song titles
Bruce Springsteen, vocals, guitar, harmonica, keyboards; accompanied by other musicians on five tracks.

Produced by Bruce Springsteen and Chuck Plotkin, recorded and mixed by Toby Scott, mastered by Dave Collins. 1995 release. (50:18)

The Ghost of Tom Joad | Straight Time | Highway 25 | Youngstown | Sinaloa Cowboys | The Line | Balboa Park | Dry Lightning | The New Timer | Across the Border | Galveston Bay | My Best Was Never Good Enough

Copyright © 1996 Peppercorn Press. All rights reserved.