Crossing guard

Springsteen's Ghost is a soft touch in hard times

In "Galveston Bay," the oft-related true story of the battle between Klansmen and Vietnamese shrimpers, Springsteen doesn't merely echo the plot of Alamo Bay, the movie made about the incident. Instead, he shines his lyrical light inside Billy, the Klansman who swore revenge after a Vietnamese man was acquitted of killing two Texans who had set his boat on fire. Springsteen is able to do in eight lines of a song what the film couldn't accomplish in an hour and a half. He takes the listener to the point where Billy has the chance to stab the Vietnamese to death but lets him pass by because in a glimmer the would-be killer realizes, perhaps, that they really have a lot in common, these two fishermen from different cultures, and that in murdering the Vietnamese he'd be killing part of himself. In one of Springsteen's trademark stirring final choruses that seemingly say little while saying so much, Billy woke up the next morning and "kissed his sleeping wife/Headed into the channel/And cast his nets into the water/Of Galveston Bay."

On the surface, The Ghost of Tom Joad is an obviously titled slice of musical solemnity from a slipping artist looking to recapture the glory days. It sometimes seems a little forced, this excuse to embark on a solo acoustic tour (which begins Monday in L.A.), especially with such self-parodying opening lines like "Got out of prison in '86 and I found a wife" (from "Straight Time") and "I got my discharge from Fort Irwin/Took a place on the county line" (from "The Line"). But with each listen the songs grow layers of new meaning, and if you twist them a certain way in the light, you can see new hues.

The album closer, "My Best Was Never Good Enough," is a lighthearted romp compared to some of the sentiments that came before it. At first the tune seems out of place, with its stringing of self-starter cliches from the likes of Forrest Gump, followed by the clinching, "But for you my best was never good enough." The song really resonates, however, with the same point that Bruce Springsteen makes throughout this socially ambitious project: In America's fervor to embrace right-wing sloganeering and fiscal-friendly stumping, we are overlooking the human side of our country's problems.

Bumper stickers, after all, don't stick to flesh for long. Springsteen describes the homeless as "sleeping on a pillow of solid rock," but at the same time the imagery could fit a country that's gotten hard where softness might be better called for. The Ghost of Tom Joad is Springsteen's plea for a human touch, and he delivers it with all the conviction of someone who burns inside with the idea that an artist is the sum of what he sees and how he sees it.

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