Bruce Springsteen is not himself on The Ghost of Tom Joad, and he clearly wants it that way. In ''Straight Time,'' he's an ex-con with a new wife and kids who wonders if he'll stray back to violence. In ''Highway 29,'' he's a small-town shoe salesman who embarks on a bank-robbing spree with a femme fatale an Al Bundy run amok. ''Youngstown'' is narrated by a disconsolate coal miner in Ohio. ''The Line'' finds Springsteen in the role of a jaded border patrol cop. And in ''The New Timer,'' he's a young man riding the rails, lurching from one backbreaking job to the next.
Even when the songs aren't first-person, they detail similar hard-luck stories. ''Balboa Park'' tells of a homeless south-of-the-border immigrant living under the San Diego Freeway; the two Mexican brothers in ''Sinaloa Cowboys'' start toiling in the fields and end up manufacturing drugs. In case you don't get the title's reference to The Grapes of Wrath's justice-seeking protagonist, Springsteen lists the book, along with recent newspaper articles like ''California's Illicit Farm Belt Export,'' in the credits. The Ghost of Tom Joad may be the first rock album to come with footnotes; an atlas would have helped, too.
This is somber stuff, and Springsteen treats it as such. The music is as parched as the Southwestern locales of many of the songs. Gently strumming his guitar, he sings in a hushed, tightened-jaw tone; even at a high volume, you'll have to press your ears close to your speakers to hear his lyrics. The tracks are mostly rhythmless and have minimal accompaniment. Springsteen took a similar lo-fi approach on his 1982 album Nebraska, but at least that album had the sheer force of ''Atlantic City'' and a few stray rockabilly licks and whoops to vary its morose pace. In comparison, The Ghost of Tom Joad sounds downright depressed.
On the surface, Springsteen's story-song approach is a smart, thoughtful move. ''Streets of Philadelphia'' demonstrated that his gift for narrative and empathetic characters hadn't dimmed, and the hip-hop rhythm and absence of guitars represented progress for a man who still enjoys playing ''Mustang Sally'' with bar bands. This album has some equally lyrical moments, like ''Straight Time'' and the title song. ''Across the Border,'' in which he and his lover yearn for a place where ''sweet blossoms fill the air,'' has a wistful beauty. And his delivery of ''Galveston Bay,'' about a Vietnamese man who starts up a business in Texas after the war and finds himself in the middle of a Klan uprising, will have you holding your breath until the climax.
But for all its nobility, The Ghost of Tom Joad still feels like a disappointing step back. If Springsteen wanted to make an album that evoked his hero, Woody Guthrie (who, inspired by John Steinbeck's book, wrote not one but two songs about Tom Joad), he's accomplished that goal this could be called Grapes of Wrath: The Next Generation. What Springsteen seems to forget is that folk music can adapt to the times. Everything from the Byrds' recasting of ''Turn! Turn! Turn!'' to Grandmaster Flash & Melle Mel's ''The Message'' to the synthesizer-textured ''Streets of Philadelphia'' qualifies as modern folk. On Tom Joad, though, Springsteen chooses to treat the form like an exhibit in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and Museum, complete with harmonica and Okie drawl. Even Guthrie never forgot the importance of writing tunes people can sing. Some of Springsteen's melodies are so listless that you wonder why he didn't make a spoken-word record.
More frustrating, the album's weaknesses go beyond musical relevance. If anyone could write about the lives of the middle class during the Republican Revolution and address the failed optimism of the Clinton years, it would be Springsteen. Yet almost none of these songs feel contemporary; their characters could easily fit in some imaginary John Ford film or Jim Thompson novel. It's telling that Springsteen's war veterans fought in Vietnam rather than Kuwait.
The Ghost of Tom Joad doesn't feel a part of our real world or Springsteen's a place in which, whether he likes it or not, his grown-up fans are as likely to vote for Newt for president as to read the immigration articles he cites. Perhaps, as a rock star who made a career of confronting class distinctions, Springsteen feels uneasy writing about his life now that he is a member of a different economic stratum. Yet as earnest as the album is, it cries out for songs about the plight of America in the '90s, such as ''Streets of Philadelphia''. By backing away from the promise of that song, Springsteen leaves us much like his new characters stranded on an open highway and wondering how we got there.