Bruce Springsteen’s best music has always been about the refusal to accept life’s meanest fates or most painful limitations. Springsteen charges his audience to remain brave, despite all the disillusion, defeat, injustice and fear that invariably dog the pursuit of ones hopes. For more than twenty years now, Springsteen’s music has worked as a cry of courage, an emboldening reassurance that life, no matter how closefisted it many seem, is worth keeping faith in. The Ghost of Tom Joad tells a different story — or at least it looks at the story through different eyes. It’s a record about people who do not abide by life’s ruins; it’s a collection of dark tales about dark men who are cut off from the purposes of their own hearts and the prospects of their own lives. On this album almost none of the characters get out with both their bodies and spirits intact, and the few who do are usually left with only frightful desolate prayers as their solace.
Plaintive, bitter epiphanies, like these are far removed from the sort anthemic cries that once filled Springsteen’s music, but then these are not times for anthems. These are times for lamentations, for measuring how much of the American promise has been broken or abandoned and how much of our future is transfigured into a vista of ruin. These are pitiless times.
The Ghost of Tom Joad is Springsteen’s response to this state of affairs. Maybe even his return to arms. In any event, this is his first overtly social statement since Born in the U.S.A.. The atmosphere created is as merciless in its own way as the world the lyrics describe, and you will have to meet or reject that atmosphere on your own terms. I’m convinced it’s Springsteen’s best album in ten years, and I also think it’s among the bravest work that anyone has given us this decade. Tom Joad bears an obvious kinship with Spingsteen’s 1982 masterwork, Nebraska. The musical backing is largely acoustic, and the sense of language and storytelling owes much to the Depression-era sensibility of Woody Guthrie. The stories are told bluntly and sparsely, and the poetry is broken and colloquial — like the speech of a man telling the stories he feels compelled to tell if only to try to be free of them. On Tom Joad, there are few escapes and almost no musical relief from the numbing circumstances of the characters’ lives. You could almost say that the music gets caught in meandering motions or drifts into circles that never break. The effect is brilliant and lovely; there’s something almost lulling in the music’s blend of acoustic arpeggios and moody keyboard textures, something that lures you into the melodies’ dark dreaminess and loose mellifluence. But makes no mistake — what you are being drawn into are scenarios of hell. American hell.
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On the title track, a man sits by a campfire under a bridge, not far from the endless railroad tracks. He is waiting on the ghost of Tom Joad, the hero of John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath. But hopes of salvation in the mid-1990s aren’t really much more palpable that ghosts, and you understand that the man sitting and praying by the fire will wait a long time before his deliverance comes. On “Straight Times,” an ex-con takes a job, marries and tries to live the sanctioned life. But the world’s judgements are never far off (even his wife watches him carefully with their children) and he waits for the time when he will slip back into the violent breach that he sees as his destiny and only hope.
The most affecting stories here, though, are the ones that Springsteen tells about a handful of undocumented immigrants and their passage into Southern California’s promised land. On “The Line” (an achingly beautiful song with a melody reminiscent of Bob Dylan’s “Love Minus Zero/No Limit), “Sinaloa Cowboys” and “Balboa Park,” Springsteen creates characters who come to their fates quickly without warning or drama. In one moment their “undocumented” lives are over, and the world takes no note of their passing or shot hopes.
By climbing into their hearts and minds, Springsteen has given voice to people who rarely have one in this culture. And giving voice to people who are typically denied expression in our other arts and media has always been one of rock & roll’s most important virtues. As we move into the rough times and badlands that lie ahead, such acts will count for more than ever before.