Imagine, for a moment, that you're a rock star of long standing. After your last two albums were met with critical cavils and lukewarm sales, you release the biggest single of your career, reunite with your old band and walk away with several Grammys and an Oscar.
Suddenly, you've got more career momentum than you've had in a decade. What do you do next?
Well, if you're Bruce Springsteen, what you do is step back. Instead of bringing in the E Street Band and recording a hard-rocking blockbuster, you produce "The Ghost of Tom Joad" (Columbia 67484, arriving in stores today), an album so ruminative and understated as to make hit singles an almost guaranteed impossibility.
It's not as if he hasn't done this before. In fact, the immediate association most Springsteen fans are going to make is "Nebraska," an album of stripped-down laments and fate-battered ballads released in 1982. At that point, Springsteen's career was on the ascent, and this quiet, country-inflected collection -- recorded on cassette in Springsteen's kitchen -- was hardly the follow-up people expected after "The River." (Even so, it ended up climbing all the way to No. 3.)
But the differences between then and now are instructive. All the songs on "Nebraska" were originally intended for the E Street Band, and it's easy to hear the rock and roll energy beneath the acoustic guitar in songs like "Johnny 99," "State Trooper" and "Atlantic City." In a sense, "Nebraska" ended up unplugged more by accident than by design.
Not so "The Ghost of Tom Joad." The songs here are purposely hushed, rich with vaporous harmony and carefully sculpted quiet. There's no way the lean chords and word-crammed cadences of story-songs like "Balboa Park" or "Galveston Bay" could ever have been intended for a band; they're too tied to the tradition of Woody Guthrie for that.
Like Guthrie's work, the best songs on this album are both personal and universal, drawing from the lives of individuals to make a point about society as a whole. The album's title tune is perhaps the most obvious example, painting a picture of homeless people alongside a highway, "waitin' for when the last shall be first and the first shall be last," but not expecting it any time soon.
As Springsteen tells us, Tom Joad is -- like Joe Hill -- a voice of social conscience, someone who will not rest so long as the weak are abused by the powerful and the poor have naught in a land of plenty. But, like Joe Hill, Tom Joad is just a ghost, and despite the power of his message can do no more for the downtrodden than keep them company 'round the campfire.
"The Ghost of Tom Joad" is full of such stories, peopled entirely by the defeated and down-at-heels. Whether it's the ex-con in "Straight Time" driven back to crime by the soul-crushing tedium of his factory job, the luckless illegals making methamphetamine in "Sinaloa Cowboys," or the cliche-spouting spouse driven to despair by the fact that "My Best Was Never Good Enough," Springsteen's protagonists all know what lies at the end of their particular rope. Pretty, it isn't.
Yet as heartworn as these songs are, there's something wonderfully alluring about Springsteen's performance. Granted, he doesn't make it easy on the listener -- most of the singing is done in that vaguely tuneful mutter he reserves for his folkie side, and the general sameness of these slow-unfolding melodies is hardly an invitation to hum along -- but once you've plumbed their depths, the songs are as moving and evocative as Steinbeck stories.
A few, like "The Line" or the fiddle-flavored "Youngstown," even manage to be catchy in their unassuming way.
Of course, whether any of that will help maintain the momentum Springsteen generated with "The Streets of Philadelphia" is doubtful. But in a way, that indifference to commerce is one of the most appealing things about "The Ghost of Tom Joad," because it reminds us of just what it was that made Springsteen important in the first place.
The Boss is back To hear excerpts from Bruce Springsteen's new release, "The Ghost of Tom Joad," call Sundial at (410) 783-1800 and enter the four-digit code 6249. For other local Sundial numbers, see the Sundial directory on Page 2A.