Somber outlook is a 'Ghost' of Boss' 'Nebraska'

"Nebraska II"

That's what immediately comes to mind after hearing "The Ghost of Tom Joad," the new release from Bruce Springsteen that hits records stores across America today.

An obvious throwback to Springsteen's 1982 "Nebraska" LP, "Joad" is lyrically mesmerizing, sometimes stagnant, always quiet and probably not the album fans were expecting at this time.

With the release earlier this year of Springsteen's "Greatest Hits" LP, rumors of an E Street Band reunion brewing throughout the summer and talk that Bruce was disappointed in the chart performances of 1992's "Human Touch" and "Lucky Town" albums, there was a strong sense that Springsteen was thirsty for a big commercial comeback. It was time for a monster album. Time for Big Bruce, with lots of sax, lots of guitars and lots of hit singles. A "Born In The U.S.A."-type record, most assumed, was surely in the works.

But in typical Springsteen fashion, Bruce has thrown us another curve. "The Ghost of Tom Joad" is the most uncommercial Springsteen album to date. Unlike "Nebraska," which offered the catchy gem "Atlantic City," there are no potential hit singles on "Joad."

The album's opening and title track (the title come from the character in John Steinbeck's "The Grapes of Wrath") is a somber social commentary on the plight of the financially strapped and the homeless. Springsteen's ability to empathize with others — demonstrated so well on last year's Grammy-winning "Streets of Philadelphia" — surfaces frequently on the album. Often, his lyrics are so vivid you can feel a chill in the air, hear the sound of cars speeding over freeways and taste the anguish and the pain of his characters.

On "Straight Time," Charlie and Mary are added to the endless list of people Springsteen has introduced over the past two decades — this time offering the story of an ex-con struggling to adjust to a straight and clean lifestyle. Small town crime and despair are again the central theme of "Highway 29," but again, Springsteen's look isn't judgmental, but sympathetic.

Escape, often the theme of Springsteen's earlier work, is also represented on "Joad." But whereas "Born To Run" presented a burning desire to bust out and rise above small town doldrums, "Joad's" characters are more jaded and beaten, sometimes only finding their escape in sleep and in dreams.

"Youngstown" questions the moral dilemma of small Ohio town that builds weapons of war, and "Sinaloa Cowboys" again portrays good people turned bad for economic reasons, this time ending in tragedy.

The power of love and passion drive "The Line," an intriguing tale of a U.S. border patrolman who allows his love interest to illegally enter the country. Again, however, the story ends on a downer, with the patrolman never seeing the woman again after allowing her to slip into the country, thus leaving him searching the "local bars" and "migrant towns" for "my Louisa."

Some hope does arise on "Across the Border," using the age-old theme that there are greener pastures elsewhere. But again, the song never allows its subject to actually "cross the border" but only dream of life on the other side.

Springsteen's mastery of storytelling shines on "Galveston Bay," in which two Vietnam veterans — one Vietnamese and one American — find themselves at odds due to post-war racial tension. And his Dylan influence was never more evident than on the album's closing cut, "My Best Was Never Good Enough." Sporting Dylan-like lyrics and cynicism — and even a bit of a nasal twang in its delivery — the song could probably even be passed off as Dylan to some listeners.

The biggest problem with "The Ghost of Tom Joad" is its tempo.

It has none.

It will surely be shrugged off by some as an "all the songs sound the same" release, and those who don't bother to follow the intricate storylines of the album's 12 tracks will be right in thinking so. It's too quiet, too somber and musically never gets out of the gate. But Springsteen will always see himself as a poet first and a musician second. And "The Ghost of Tom Joad" is American poetry, compete with characters and images so clear that — like all of Springsteen's best work — they immediately conjure up vivid music videos of the mind. Springsteen, as a artist, needs to make an album like this every 12 years or so, and although it will do nothing to reestablish him as The Boss, it should fulfill his desire to occasionally return to his folk roots.

And what, if you recall, was the follow up 1982's "Nebraska?"

"Born In The U.S.A."

Prediction: With "The Ghost of Tom Joad," Springsteen has cleansed his soul and has temporarily satisfied his desire to work as a solo artist. Look for a bigger sounding Bruce — back with the boys and a new album — at a stadium near you late next year.