Here and throughout, Springsteen sings with a starkness and immediacy that's comparable in my experience only with the most haunting blues and country voices--those of Skip James, Robert Johnson, Hank Williams, or Son House, the sort of voice that finds you across a dark room and stares you down. When you encounter one of those voices, you either let it in and listen to the stories it has to tell, or you close the door; you don't dust the furniture or carry on a conversation.
From song to song the voice is worried, ravaged, beyond outrage; there is no indignity gross enough to elicit a protest from it. This was enough to make a couple of people I know want to turn away. Too painful, they said, and too much the same. Myself, I don't hear a wasted or careless syllable. Certain lines are hard to hear; the characters are forever swallowing their words and their aspirations. "I was good at doin' what I was told," says the border patrolman in "The Line," and in that he speaks for everybody here. But Springsteen, starting from the fact of their anonymity, fights it every step of the way. The more you listen, the more you're struck by the odd meticulousness of his phrasing, as though every fleeting detail must be set down, made to count.
He means to remember, which is the last thing anyone on the record wants to do. There's another passage in the goodbye scene from The Grapes of Wrath that figures here: Tom Joad is thinking about the preacher Casey--"'bout what he said, what he done. 'Bout how he died. And I remember all of it." But if the act of remembering held out a kind of redemption in a world where others still spoke the same language and shared the same memories, it's strictly a burden to these people--a bad taste left in one's mouth, an impediment to traveling light. At one point Springsteen revisits "Thunder Road," the best of his early love songs, and turns it on its head. "Dry Lightning" is one long ache; if the narrator isn't actually impotent, he may as well be. When he tells his lover, "I can't lose your memory/The sweet smell of your skin," he's complaining; his life would be easier if he could. The counterpoint comes in the middle of "Highway 29," after a botched bank robbery that ends in bloodshed: "In a little desert motel, the air was hot and clean/I slept the sleep of the dead, I didn't dream." For that instant he is grateful, and it's the only moment when any of these men finds peace with himself.
Mostly they just move on, trying to get by, get high, stay alive. The 12 songs that comprise the record are stories without endings; you don't find out what happens to Miguel Rosales after his brother dies in an explosion at the shack where they cook up methamphetamine, or to the border patrol cop who finally quits his job to look for the woman he had risked everything to help across. You don't know whether Spider, the hustler who crawls back to his shantytown bed, wakes up in the morning or not. Their stories simply pass across your field of vision and pass away.
It seems only fitting that the last action any of them takes turns out to be shrouded in mystery. "Galveston Bay" is the story of two men bound together in ways that neither of them can fathom: a pair of Vietnam vets, Le Bin Son and Billy Sutter, who wind up working fishing boats in the same Texas coast town. After Le shoots a couple of Klansmen who were trying to burn his family's boat, Billy swears to kill him. He goes to the harbor late one night and stands waiting in the shadows, a knife in his hand. But when Le passes by, something causes Billy to stick the knife in his pocket. The moment passes; nothing happens. Maybe Billy decides his own humanity counts for more than the vengeance he's dreamed of wreaking. Or maybe he just has a failure of nerve and stuffs those energies back down inside himself to erupt again some other time. You don't know, and probably he doesn't either, because in the end he and everyone else here are as much strangers to themselves as to the people they meet.
I don't know what kind of audience The Ghost of Tom Joad will find; there is no "rock audience" anymore to answer it, to say yes or no, and Springsteen's own audience is in considerable disarray. But I do know the record makes demands of a sort Springsteen has always shied from and that no one else would dream of making. For all its similarities to Nebraska, which envisioned the same winner's America and measured life in its shadow with the same quiet rage, Tom Joad goes further. Nebraska was tidier, easier to put down; Tom Joad's stories work their way inside you and begin to fester.
In the process they come together as a rebuke: to the poisonous cant of Reagan's and Gingrich's and Clinton's America, sure, but they carry an equal measure of scorn for all the decent people who just don't care to know. (The very last song, "My Best Was Never Good Enough," is Springsteen's little valentine to them, a catalog of chin-up motivational slogans incanted with perfect contempt; open it up and it says Fuck you.) As I write this, it's hard to believe that anyone who really listened to The Ghost of Tom Joad could ever see the country in the same way again. Of course that's wishful thinking. It's easy enough to set it aside--as a downer, or a passing swipe at Newt Gingrich, or, as David Browne wrote in Entertainment Weekly, an untrue reflection of "our" America. But as I've played it for the past month, it's made every other piece of music I've tried to listen to seem trifling. And it's made the whole drama of family values and welfare reform and budget compromises seem like not just vile gamesmanship, but the purest obscenity.