The word on Bruce Springsteen's new album, The Ghost of Tom Joad, is that it's Nebraska II--i.e., another stark and unadorned acoustic song cycle. That's at once an over- and understatement. Nebraska, of course, was an accident: a bunch of demos for a proposed new 1982 E Street Band album that was finally released almost as an oddity. Tom Joad, by contrast, is a deliberate move, and, while quiet, it's actually fairly well instrumentalized, with a host of supporting players and, particularly, dollops of that blanketing synthesizer that has become the distinctive Springsteenian touch of latter-day hits like "Streets of Philadelphia." But it's an understatement because, let me tell you, The Ghost of Tom Joad makes Nebraska look like James Brown's Live at the Apollo. The record's framing conceit is that Mexican immigrants are the new dust-bowl migrants, with a few modernizing twists, most having to do with drug-running. The actual songs are, to his mind, properly sober as a consequence--soft, almost inflectionless, virtually melodyless recitations of unhappy border tales. This setting permeates even the love songs ("The first time I saw her / She was in the holdin' pen"). Springsteen can be so literal that it's hard to appreciate some of the record's subtleties: having decided to make an album with, in effect, both hands tied behind his back, he tries to put his art across with a slight vocal twist in the last line of a song, this or that musical touch (the pretty violin in "Across the Border"), or just a word or two of lyrics (a "piss-yellow sun" in "Dry Lightning," for example). None of this is enough--it's a monstrous project. I don't pity rock stars as a matter of principle, but you've got to feel for how his mid-80s collision with superstardom (whose impending force Nebraska, ironically enough, neatly delayed) has fucked Springsteen up. He's always waiting for years between albums and then delivers nervous, somewhat unwelcome surprises, like 1986's five-record live set, 1992's dual releases (Lucky Town and Human Touch), or this collection of extremist neo-folk stolidly depoppified to ensure that no one will derive actual pleasure from it. It seems as if this confusion should end sometime, but right now there's no end to it in sight. The show is sold-out. Sunday, 7:30 PM, Rosemont Theatre, 5400 N. River Road, Rosemont; 708-671-5100.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Pam Springsteen.