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Music for the masses // THE BOSS

Fans of Bruce Springsteen around the world will likely release a collective sigh of relief with today's debut of the superstar rocker's latest album, The Ghost of Tom Joad.

Not only is it _ finally _ the first full-length album of new Springsteen material since 1992's ill-fated Human Touch and Lucky Town records, it's also very good.

That's cause for celebration among many fans, who fretted for years over the direction Springsteen might take in his third all-new album after dissolving his legendary backup unit, the E Street Band, in 1989.

On Tom Joad, he puts on the troubadour's hat he left behind in 1982's Nebraska _ avoiding the E Street Band question entirely by crafting sensitive, acoustic guitar-and-vocal-based songs centered on the plight of America's everyday people.

"I have a lot of freedom at this point . . . I'd like to do everything that I can do," said the 46-year-old rocker in an exclusive interview several months ago. "I'd like to work consistently from year to year, doing everything from E Street kind of stuff to other things."

In this case, that includes a solo acoustic tour that takes his stark new album to the people _ starting Sunday in Los Angeles and winding through New Jersey, New York, San Francisco, Chicago, Philadelphia and Boston.

It's the perfect move for a rocker who seemed in danger of slipping into irrelevancy _ evoking the current political climate while returning to the timeless struggle of the working man.

But Springsteen will admit no such motivations in assembling such a stripped-down, emotionally revealing work.

"I don't read a lot of the stuff written about me . . . I don't seek out that stuff," he said, referring to rumors of a new album and tour with the E Street Band. "That stuff happens with people who do what I do. I've been contained with the same group of people for a long time. I'd like to write with other people . . . try some new things."

To that end, Tom Joad mixes familiar faces with new names, collecting a cast of backing players that includes ex-E Streeters Danny Federici on keyboards and Garry Tallent on bass; Human Touch/Lucky Town veteran Gary Mallabar on drums; wife Patti Scialfa on backing vocals and violinist Soosie Tyrell.

The loose collection of musicians create a fluid, restrained sonic canvas for Springsteen's evocative stories (he also plays seven songs alone) _ bringing gently insistent synthesizer patches and bass lines to the title track, while a more conventional, pedal steel and violin-flavored country feel pushes the bleak observations of a working man in Youngstown.

Picking out a folksy guitar melody amid tasty bursts of harmonica, he offers this political analysis on the title track _ named for the protagonist in John Steinbeck's Depression-era novel, The Grapes of Wrath: "Welcome to the new world order/Families sleepin' in their cars in the Southwest/No home no job no peace no rest."

Mixed low _ you will find yourself continually turning up the volume to hear the evocative textures Springsteen employs throughout _ Tom Joad crackles with the urgency of a whispered plea.

As an ex-convict trying hard to stay honest in the mournful lament Straight Time, he says: "In the darkness before dinner comes/Sometimes I can feel the itch/I got a cold mind to go tripping 'cross that thin line/I'm sick of doin' straight time."

The downbeat tales stretch on _ a border patrol guard who helps a beautiful Mexican woman across the line; a young hustler blown to bits while cooking methamphetamine; a drifter who seduces a woman and robs a bank _ lyrical snapshots capturing the drama of life at the bottom.

If there's an irony here, it's the one that continually plagues Springsteen _ a multimillionaire who tries to create evocative tales of people living lives light-years removed from the Beverly Hills home and studio he inhabits.

Still, those who worried Springsteen might lose creative steam in the '90s can rest easy. The Ghost of Tom Joad proves rock's most heartfelt songwriter still has plenty of stories to share; even if they're not the kind that will let you sleep like a baby.