The Ghost of Tom Joad (1995)


1. The Ghost of Tom Joad 2. Straight Time 3. Highway 29 4. Youngstown 5. Sinaola Cowboys 6. The Line 7. Balboa Park 8. Dry Lightning 9. The New Timer 10.Across the Border 11.Galveston Bay 12.My Best was Never Good Enough

 

With an album title like this, you almost know what to expect before you even listen to it the first time. Especially since the word was that this was going to be more in the vein of his Nebraska album. "Tom Joad" was the Steinbeck character in the Grapes of Wrath - the guy who's a farmer during the great depression whose family his starving, etc. Perfect material for a guy like Springsteen.

So, yes, you can imagine that the lyrics here convey the typical Springsteen topics: unemployment, life as an ex-con, life as a con, life as an illegal immigrant and so on and so on and so on. This really shouldn't surprise anyone, especially since Bruce had sort of taken a "vacation" from this sort of the style on his last several albums, and the masses of dedicated fans were less than thrilled. And of course, no one is as good as conveying the emotions of these characters than Springsteen, whose lyrics have always been a strong asset to his songs almost as much as the music itself. Therein lies the problem with this release: the music. Specifically, the lack of music.

Springsteen seems to have forgotten that if you're writing and recording music, well, your first priority should be the music - the melody, the hooks, the feelings. Instead he almost "speaks" this dreary dialog over mostly an acoustic guitar. This is o.k. for a song or two. But by the time we get to the third song of the album, nothing really changes much, so you end up tuning the entire thing out and lose focus. There's only so much of this that a listener can take. Perhaps "listening" is the key word here. To get any enjoyment out of this album, you have to devote all your energy to just that. In other words, forget about having this on in the background, listening to when driving, or any other "multi-tasking" you might do. The tunes essentially become pointless by then. No, you must do nothing but listen; preferably in a still house. With headphones. Alone. If you meet all these requirements, I can see where you might enjoy this album. This is a big shame since Nebraska was made in a similar vein. The differences were that those tunes were catchy and you could sing along to them - even they were incredibly depressing.

The real sting was that the critics loved this one. If you ever needed a reason to dismiss or distrust critics in the music industry, look no further than the treatment of this album. It even won a Grammy. For a folk album. Well, of course, I stopped watching the Grammys ever since Debbie Boone beat Warren Zevon for best new artist back in 1978. This was his first, and so far only, failure. It really didn't help matters when he "toured" with this album (in smaller venues, of course) and asked for his audiences to be completely silent - at a Springsteen show. Strange.

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