Bruce Springsteen – The Ghost of Tom Joad

The Ghost Of Tom Joad (1995)

C

1. The Ghost Of Tom Joad 2. Straight Time 3. Highway 29 4. Youngstown 5. Sinaloa 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

 

Hey, look! It’s Nebraska 2: South of the Border! I mean, geez, it’s rarely fair to expect all that much from sequels, but let’s just say The Ghost of Tom Joad is more 2 Fast 2 Furious than The Empire Strikes Back. I never thought I’d hear a Springsteen album so devoid of energy and personality that it would make me want to listen to Human Touch instead, but, well… here it is.

It certainly wasn’t a bad idea in theory for Bruce to attempt a return to his acoustic guitar-toting teller of tales of socio-economic woe mode at this point in his career. In fact, it’s probably the smartest thing he could have done (well, short of reforming the E Street Band, of course, which took him a few more years yet). He had just put out the first two albums of his career to receive anything less than rapturous critical acclaim, and which were criticized mainly for being 1) overproduced and 2) too lyrically focused on himself and his romantic life. Obviously, the logical opposite of that underwhelming approach would be an album of quiet folk songs about meth-cooking illegal immigrants, murdered hobos, and economic hardship in forgotten Rust Belt industrial towns. Sounds like it’s right in Bruce’s wheelhouse, doesn’t it?

Well, I’m certainly not going to knock Bruce’s storytelling prowess on Tom Joad. Not unlike he did on Nebraska, he’s drawing extremely detailed, vividly rendered characters filled with pain and moral ambiguity, and placing them in even darker, more desperate situations, rife with poignant social commentary, that they rarely escape from. But in order to discern that, I actually had to go read all the lyrics on the internet, because the music is SO BORING I can barely pay enough attention when the album is playing to listen to those lyrics, much less dissect them.

Seriously, these are some of the laziest, made-up-in-ten-seconds folk dirges I’ve ever had the displeasure of hearing, and this is coming from an alumnus of Bennington College, home of the bullshit folk singer (I should know – I was one of the biggest bullshit folk singers there!). I hesitate to even call what Bruce is doing here “songwriting.” It seems too dignified a term for “taking two or three chords, applying the most basic beginner finger-picking pattern imaginable, and mumbling unintelligibly over them as a virtually inaudible synth pad plays way in the background.” It takes NO GODDAMN EFFORT WHATSOEVER. I honestly can’t help but assume Bruce wrote all the music for this album in about 45 minutes on the morning he entered the studio, upon remembering that he was supposed to record “songs” and not a collection of short stories.

Seriously, what good are great lyrics if I either can’t hear them or they’re set to folk melodies so heavily recycled that they are actively contributing to the shrinking of the world’s landfills? Starting with the first of those problem, almost every song is mixed so goddamn quietly you have to pump the mother up to 11 before you can even tell if it’s actually Bruce Springsteen singing or just some sidewalk busker who accidentally wandered into a studio one day. A huge part of what made Nebraska so great was the eerie lo-fi sonic experimentation. Tom Joad, on the other hand, is the sonic equivalent of egg white-colored wallpaper: naked and dull as can be. As for the other problem, the melodies are so fucking lazy and derivative it’s almost offensive. And Bruce isn’t just swiping from Woody and Dylan, either; there’s a heavy self-ripoff factor involved here too. I mean, “The New Timer” IS “Nebraska.” “The Line” IS “Highway Patrolman.” That one is even about a straight-laced officer of the law who watches a law-breaking loved one cross a border at night! I mean, what the fuck?

Occasionally a haunting or otherwise thought-provoking line or verse will poke out of the sleepy haze far enough to demand some attention, like in “Sinaloa Cowboys,” the aforementioned illegal immigrant meth-cooking saga that might as well be a Breaking Bad prequel. There’s also “My Best Was Never Good Enough,” hands down one of the weirdest songs in Bruce’s catalog, consisting of Bruce delivering a series of profanity-laden clichés (“The early bird catches the fuckin’ worm,” “Stupid is as stupid does and all the rest of that shit,” etc.) set to a deliberately cloying melody; hey, at least it’s novel. But ultimately, the only songs worth keeping on Tom Joad are the precious few that sound like Bruce started with an actual melody to work with before he started writing the lyrics. There’s only three of them, really: the Steinbeck-referencing title track, which works better in the muscled-up rock arrangement that the E Street Band renders it with live but is still haunting in its starker form, the braying historical lament “Youngstown,” which benefits immeasurably from a full band arrangement complete with sawing fiddle, and “Straight Time,” a pretty, emotionally powerful tale of an ex-criminal who has since gone straight but still feels the pull to his old life.

The other “songs” can go fuck themselves.



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