The Ghost Of Tom Joad
Columbia Records, 1996
REVIEW BY: Sean McCarthy
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 03/21/2000
Even in a utopian society, Bruce Springsteen would probably still be able to drop an album as dark as Nebraska to the public. Look at the year 1995. It was that year when people started to tire of angst-ridden music. Hootie and the Blowfish was selling truckloads of albums just as ol' fashioned rock and roll was restoring its dominance on the music charts.
Springsteen could have ridden the top of the charts with an album full of soaring anthems like his electric "Born To Run" or "Born In The U.S.A." But, the Boss chose to go acoustic. And while everyone was craving something a bit more cherry than Nirvana or Soundgarden, Springsteen gave us The Ghost Of Tom Joad. Record-execs craving a massive hit must have stocked up on heart medication after listening to this brutal, folk masterpiece.
Even with the economy rising and employment dropping to record-low figures, Springsteen knows that profits are usually made by the suffering of others. And The Ghost Of Tom Joad is full of suffering. Crippling unemployment, ex-convicts tempted to go back to their old ways to put food on the table and pay for rent are some of the subjects Springsteen deals with on The Ghost Of Tom Joad. Nearly three years before the meth epidemic made its way into the national spotlight, he sings about meth labs blowing up in "Sinaloa Cowboys".
Comparisons to Nebraska, Springsteen's other dark, acoustic masterpiece were inevitable. But The Ghost Of Tom Joad deserves to be looked at on its own merits. The title track is heavily influenced by Bob Dylan and Springsteen's weather-beaten voice makes the Dylan comparisons even more evident.
"Youngstown," one of the highlights on the album, is a damning vindication of a town born on industry, only to have that industry shut down and move on. Springsteen doesn't dull the pain as he droans, "Now the yard's just scrap and rubble/ He said 'Them big boys did what Hitler couldn't do." Pedal steel guitars and violins only add to the song's sorrow.
Still, you can count on Springsteen for his wicked and vastly underrated sense of humor. And the Boss-man lays the sarcasm on heavy on the final track, "My Best Was Never Good Enough." Over an acoustic guitar rhythm, he spouts off most all of the "wisdom" aquired in the movie Forrest Gump.
Springsteen may never shake the dunderheads who thought "Born In The U.S.A." was a flag-waving ode to Ronald Reagan. But damned if he doesn't try by releasing material like The Ghost Of Tom Joad every now and then. The album caught the attention of Rage Against the Machine enough for them to do a blistering cover of "The Ghost Of Tom Joad".
As for his acoustic work, Nebraska may very well be his crowning achievement. But The Ghost Of Tom Joad comes close to besting that barren work of art as well. And fortunately, Springsteen's timing in releasing these types of albums is impecible. He reminds us that no matter how low inflation, interest rates are or how high the stock market is, someone will always lose their job, someone will always get out of prison and honest people will always be tempted to walk that dangerous, fine line for the sake of putting a roof over their heads.