Crossing guard

A languid harmonica, the trumpet of the downtrodden, is the first sound you hear on Bruce Springsteen's new LP The Ghost of Tom Joad. Then comes the gentle tug of guitar strings and a voice too wise, too weary to worry about enunciating last syllables. "Men walkin' 'long the railroad tracks/Goin' someplace there's no goin' back/Highway patrol choppers comin' up over the ridge," Springsteen sings, setting the scene for steel guitar daydreams and the drum taps of reality's wake-up call.

The new, mostly acoustic Springsteen album is a return to the stripped-down tunes of desperation that marked the 1982 LP Nebraska. Like that classic album, which was written in reaction to the big chill of Reaganomics, the new LP bleeds compassion into a rising tide of conservative dogma. Inspired by John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath, whose lead character was the Dust Bowl refugee Tom Joad, Springsteen's protagonists are those with "No home, no job, no peace, no rest," as he sings on the title track. Aiming to underline the humanity of those in derelict clothes, Springsteen seems to be saying "Meet the new depression, same as the old one," and he draws out the analogy by paraphrasing Joad's famous "Ma, I'll be there" speech on the LP's first cut.

No doubt inspired by his move to Southern California, Springsteen's Ghost is also rich with border-town allegory as "The Boss" seems tremendously moved by the plight of Mexican migrants who have found there's no room for them in "the Promised Land." That's right, Springsteen is still mining that Promised-Land routine, but joining the laid-off factory workers and hot-rod angels of Springsteenville are the "border boys" who take great risks in order to sleep under the freeways of America.

In the liner notes, Springsteen cites the book Journey To Nowhere and two border-related articles from The Los Angeles Times as sources for his lyrics, but he seems to have also been inspired by movies like El Norte and The Border, which have themes similar to the new songs "The Line" and "Across the Border." Even before The River, which was a creative catastrophe of gesture over contact, Springsteen has long favored grandiose symbolism, and the Mexican-American border is too much to pass up. One song, however, rescues Springsteen from the land of the obvious.

"Sinaloa Cowboys," which could be the album's most powerful song, is about two teenaged brothers from Northern Mexico who make a wrong choice in the fields of California and, as their father warned, must pay the price. They leave backbreaking, low-paying jobs in the orchards to work in a methamphetamine lab, but the lab explodes, killing one of the brothers. It's doubtful if loss and regret have ever been portrayed so poignantly as in the song's final scene, where the older brother carries his slain younger brother out to a eucalyptus grove. There, he digs up all the illicit money they'd saved--about $10,000--then kisses his brother's lips and places him in the grave.

On first listen, the main problem with the new album is that it sounds like it should be called The Ghost of Nebraska. Though there's a little more instrumentation on the new one, with the organ from "Streets of Philadelphia" coloring several tracks, the new songs have soundalikes on Nebraska, and in some cases they even say the same thing. The new "Highway 29," for instance, recounts the same dangerous mix of love and evil that Springsteen wrote about on the title track of Nebraska. "Youngstown" is yet another elegy for the working man in the dying town; and "The Line" finds a law officer looking the other way (shades of the brilliant "Highway Patrolman"), for reasons that go much deeper than a job. But, then, Springsteen has never been one to shy away from some well-intentioned self-plagiarism.

A key distinction between the two Springsteen LPs is that where the writer tried to understand the motivation for all the malevolence in Nebraska, with its cast of human time bombs and lost souls, in The Ghost of Tom Joad the characters grapple with the demons of temptation from within and generally win the battle.

In "Straight Time," the parolee curses the hard life of a law-abiding ex-con, but when he's on the verge of returning to the thug life, he drops his gun and goes back to bed where he dreams of a better life. In "The New Timer," a young rounder stares up at a black ceiling with his thoughts seesawing between revenge and salvation, but in the end there is only the unanswered darkness: "My Jesus, your gracious love and mercy/Tonight I'm sorry could not fill my heart/Like one good rifle/And the name of who I ought to kill." If "The New Timer" had been on Nebraska, that stanza would've been at the beginning of the song, not the end.

Springsteen now has a wife and three sons (the bachelor Bruce recorded Nebraska), which could be the impetus for the new feeling of hope in this exploration of the underbelly of society. Where the single man can afford cool observation with "not in my lifetime" thoughts helping him drive past the desolation while he takes notes, the family man can't help but look several decades down the road, with the blinders of responsibility shielding the glare. Nebraska said that "there's just an evil in this world" and conceded that some people "just ain't no good." The Ghost of Tom Joad tells us that all people have some good in them, but every time someone gets beaten down because of their social standing, the goodness gets knocked back a little further.

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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Michael Corcoran