CK Retro Review: The Ghost Of Tom Joad by Bruce SpringsteenPosted: May 5, 2014
After briefly reuniting with the E Street Band for a Greatest Hits project, Bruce Springsteen once again pulled back from the grandeur and hugeness of his rock-based music for an intimate batch of story songs. Like Nebraska, 1995’s The Ghost Of Tom Joad had its basis in folk music, although Springsteen allowed the stray electric instrument now and then on this album even as he kept things stark. He also brought the social issues which lurked in the nooks and crannies of the Nebraska songs more to the forefront on this album, without, for the most part, making it all taste like medicine. Here is a song-by-song review.
12. “The New Timer”- This one drags. All of the depressing themes become pretty burdensome, especially without any melody to provide a little light.
11. “Balboa Park”- The way that the tale of the protagonist Spider ends without any ceremony in a sudden, violent flash shows how much Springsteen had changed from the romanticized street drama of the old days. Still, there’s not much of a character arc for this poor young kid caught up in drug smuggling, but maybe that’s the point.
10. “Dry Lightning”- The lyrics get a bit disheveled as the song goes on, but there’s still a fascinating inner monologue at play here. There’s something so ineffectual about the titular phenomenon that it’s a perfect metaphor here. It reflects the futile efforts of this wayward soul to find some sort of comfort.
9. “Galveston Bay”- Springsteen subverts expectations by having the two protagonists here, who seem destined for some sort of deciding confrontation, pass each other in the night, better judgment winning out over societal pressures for once. The impact of the tale is limited somewhat by the fact that this sounds too much like a short story set (barely) to music.
8. “Youngstown”- It’s along the same lines as Billy Joel’s “Allentown,” albeit not quite as catchy. The full-band approach really helps here, because Springsteen makes his points about a dying industrial town in fashion that is more workmanlike than transcendent, which I suppose is apropos for the subject matter. The ominous moan of Soosie Tyrell’s violin playing off the twang of Marty Rifkin’s pedal steel really helps to elevate what could have been forgettable material.
7. “My Best Was Never Good Enough”- I know that it’s little more than a throwaway, but it does provide some badly-needed, irreverent humor at the end of what up until then is an unrelentingly bleak set of subjects. And it takes a crack at Forrest Gump, which, for a Pulp Fiction backer like me, wins it a few points.
6. “Highway 25”- The story is right out of some B-movie: Lust leads to crime leads to death. But Springsteen underplays the lurid nature of it all to get at the psychology that would make someone act so recklessly. “I told myself it was all something in her/But as we drove I knew it was something in me,” is the narrator’s self-aware summation. The climax, with its flashing imagery, is reminiscent of the closing scenes of Neil Young’s “Powderfinger.”
5. “Sinaloa Cowboys”- This is one of many songs on the album where it’s impossible to listen without a sense of creeping dread. You just know it isn’t going to end well, even as Springsteen’s melody matches the tenderness of the relationship between the two young brothers. The final twist, with one brother burying the other in the hiding place for their money stash after the meth shack which provided that stash explodes, feels more inevitable than ironic, which is why it stings all the more.
4. “Straight Time”- A simmering slow-burner that hasn’t received enough attention outside of Springsteen diehards, this track is another that benefits from the full band behind Springsteen. Even as they restrain themselves from any type of showy playing, they create the stifling atmosphere that the song requires. What better way to accompany the tale of a man whose release from jail transported him to a different kind of prison, one in which his urge toward mayhem and chaos is squelched by a steady job and family life. “Seems you can’t get any more than half-free,” Springsteen sings in one of several striking lines that lay bare the character’s insides. We leave him with befouled hands, dreams of escape, and a newly sawed-off gun in the basement, and we carry with us a portrait much more insightful than the old clichéd view of the recidivist criminal.
3. “Across The Border”- What does it say about the overall mood of The Ghost Of Tom Joad that the most hopeful song on the record is one in which the narrator is probably beckoning his love to join him from the Great Beyond? That appears to be the figurative “border” at play in this lovely track which boasts the album’s most ingratiating melody and a wonderful turn from Soosie Tyrell with a harmonized violin part. “For what are we without hope in our hearts?” our narrator asks, which is a stunning question for Springsteen to put in his mouth considering the laundry list of tragedies and social ills the album documents. That’s typical Bruce though: Forcing us to believe in something even when all evidence points us the opposite way. When the music is this moving, it’s easy to be swayed.
2. “The Ghost Of Tom Joad”- Springsteen has taken this song in more of a bombastic direction of late, but I’ll take the desolation of the original every time. His voice barely above a whisper, Springsteen catalogues the degrading interconnectedness of poverty, hunger, and homelessness in language that doesn’t pull punches. Notice how the melody rises with a sliver of hope when he sings, “The highway is alive tonight,” only to crash back down to reality with “But nobody’s kiddin’ nobody about where it goes.” The only remedy is to call back Steinbeck’s unforgettable anti-hero from The Grapes Of Wrath to repeat his credo and banish all this nonsense to another dimension. If only it were that easy.
1. “The Line”- If we’re going to compare The Ghost Of Tom Joad to Nebraska, “The Line” would have to be its “Highway Patrolman,” the emotional centerpiece where there are no easy answers or choices and circumstances mock all simplistic notions of right and wrong. There’s even a standoff in the headlights in this song as well. And again, even in this long story song, Springsteen’s ability to cut to the heart of the matter shines through; you can sum up all of the underlying problems in the words of grizzled Border Patrol agent Bobby Ramirez: “Carl, hunger is a powerful thing.” This song, more than any other on the album, strikes just the right balance between telling a compelling little story and eloquently highlighting the big-picture issue. In this case, the issue was immigration, which shows that Springsteen was prescient with this one as well.
(E-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow me on Twitter @JimBeviglia. My new book, Counting Down Bruce Springsteen, arrives in June, but pre-orders are now available at all major online booksellers.)