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The Return to Desolate Highway

BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN

“The Ghost of Tom Joad”

Columbia

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It’s easy to see why Springsteen evoked for the album’s title the name of the main character in John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath,” the celebrated, late-'30s novel about a Dust Bowl family’s heartbreaking ordeal as migrant workers in Central California.

At the core of this stark, acoustic album, Springsteen writes about the plight of today’s immigrants--from Mexico, chiefly--and their corresponding struggles in a country that is asking itself if it’s not time to build fences around its borders.

You don’t have to get very far into the album, however, to come up with an alternative title: “The Ghost of Nebraska"--and that’s good and bad for Springsteen.

Though it was his least commercial album, 1982’s “Nebraska” remains Springsteen’s most haunting work--a look at hardening socioeconomic conditions that strip people of their hopes and self-respect in ways that make them feel they have nothing left to lose but themselves. Many of the themes of that album resurface here, which could lead some listeners to think Springsteen is just repeating himself--especially a song such as “Youngstown,” which speaks of deserted factories.

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One complaint over the years about Springsteen is that he too often drives the same streets in his music. In most cases in past albums, however, Springsteen has simply explored similar subject matter from different perspectives.

In that same spirit, “Straight Time” and “Highway 29" are so artfully designed that they step out of the shadow of “Nebraska.” They make us feel again the isolation and rage of descendants of Tom Joad--the feeling of being discarded as obsolete in a country in which the friction between the haves and have-nots seems dangerously close to an explosive resolve.

Yet “The Ghost of Tom Joad” is most absorbing when it touches on the nation’s relationship to its new arrivals. “Sinaloa Cowboys” speaks of two brothers from Mexico who come to Central California only to learn the truth of their father’s parting warning: One thing you will learn / For everything the north gives / It extracts a price in return .

“The Line” and “Balboa Park” speak in equally unsettling ways about the dehumanizing effect when a society sees outsiders as invaders rather than neighbors. “Galveston Bay” shifts the setting to Texas, but the tensions remain as a Vietnam War vet and his new Vietnamese rival cast their fishermen’s nets in the same uneasy waters.

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In the album, Springsteen moves away from the personal introspection that has been the center of his work since 1987’s “Tunnel of Love.” It’s as if “Streets of Philadelphia,” his moving, 1993 ballad about a man whose body is being destroyed by AIDS, reconnected him to the social observer/commentator role of “Nebraska.”

The new album has a moment of humor (the odd-fitting, bittersweet “My Best Was Never Good Enough,” which sarcastically repeats feel-good cliches from “Forrest Gump” and elsewhere) and emotional relief (the spiritual cleansing of “Across the Border”).

Mostly, however, it is an uncompromising look at the soul of a nation so overwhelmed by shifting social and economic demands that it is too often numb to the cries of despair in our midst.

In songs drawn from both imagination and from newspaper headlines, Springsteen asks us to pause a moment and to listen to those cries.

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Albums are rated on a scale of one star (poor), two stars (fair), three stars (good) and four stars (e x cellent).


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