Springsteen'S Ghost Of Tom Joad:Album Review
Bruce Springsteen's least commercial album to date, Ghost of Tom Joad, hearkens back to the days of folk singers like Woodie Guthrie and early Bob Dylan, with a generous touch of John Steinbeck for good measure.
At a time when many recording artists try to outsell their previous albums, Bruce Springsteen has taken a different tact altogether. Released with little fanfare, Springsteen's "Ghost of Tom Joad" only sold a few hundred thousand copies, barely enough to be considered a success in a world of multi-platinum record sales. However, "Ghost of Tom Joad" is one of Springsteen's best albums.
The immediate comparison listeners will make with "Ghost" is "Nebraska," the acoustic masterpiece released in the early '80s. But these two albums are not nearly as similar in tone as one might think. "Nebraska is perhaps the more listenable of the two, with such memorable tracks as 'Atlantic City' and 'Highway Patrolman'. 'Ghost' comes very close to achieving that same intimacy on the title track and the underplayed classic "Youngstown", but overall the melodies are not as crisp and memorable as Nebraska. The most obvious predecessor to the music of "Tom Joad" is the single 'Streets of Philadelphia', with its subdued emotions and streetwise lyrics. The songs on Tom Joad are straight out of a Raymond Carver short story collection, with a generous helping of John Steinbeck. These characters are all damaged in some respect, whether it be the just-paroled convict in 'Straight Time' or the recovering alcoholic found in 'Dry Lightning'. Life is a never-ending challenge, and few of the narrators found in Springsteen's songs have mastered that challenge.
This is not to say that the album is depressing as a whole. Like many of the best Woody Guthrie or Bob Dylan songs, the songs contain a grain of something indestructible in the spirits of the characters. The disillusioned border patrolman in 'The Line' allows a beautiful Mexican girl to illegally cross the border with her family, only to lose her in the chaos that follows. The young street hustler in 'Balboa Park' survives an ambush in the park he frequents, only to realize that his only friend was not so fortunate. These songs are charged with political and social issues, but are performed in such an deceptively underplayed style by Springsteen and a pick-up band consisting of a few E-street band members and his wife Patti Scialfa. The main emphasis, however, is simply Springsteen and his guitar, punctuated with devastating harmonica breaks.
No, this album does not quite measure up to the classic status of Nebraska, but it is definitely worth checking out if you are a fan of Springsteen, or the folk movement as a whole. Ghost of Tom Joad is not an affectation by a rock singer- it is the genuine expression of an artist trying to maintain his roots while forging a career in a different genre. Perhaps it is this duality that has kept the music of Bruce Springsteen fresh and innovative. He is indeed a poet of the people, and with this album has successfully filled the niche carved out by Pete Seeger, Woodie Guthrie and Bob Dylan.