Review Summary: Often overlooked in favour of Springsteen's more expansive work, Ghost of Tom Joad is a gorgeous gem that requires attention.
The 90s are often regarded by fans as a difficult patch for the Boss. Having attained such stature to almost become mythical in the previous decades, Springsteen had become not only a national treasure but also a walking embodiment of the American dream. The Ghost of Tom Joad
, an album of broadly acoustic story-telling musings and blue collar fantasies was never going to be numbered amongst the mighty Born To Run
, nor does it carry the emotional depth of Darkness On The Edge of Town
. Of all the albums produced without the E Street Band however, Ghost of Tom Joad
is perhaps the most intelligent, poignant and sincere of any of Springsteen's less acclaimed work.
Opening with the title track 'The Ghost of Tom Joad', the minimal tone of Springsteen's new direction is set. Sparse acoustic backdrops, layered with subtle organs, strings and harmonicas make up most of the albums music, allowing Springsteen's distinctive voice and storytelling to guide the ebb and flow of the music. Here, there is none of the gritty power behind the Shakespearian drama of 'Backstreets' or the towering anthem 'Born to Run'. Instead, we here Springsteen at his most soulful and sincere, quietly strumming out tales of desperate mexican migrants or blue-collar workers left behind in tumbleweed backwater towns.
Listening to these lyrics, it is not hard to get caught up in the mythology. 'Youngstown' and 'The Ghost of Tom Joad' follow straight on from a long trail of literary American pioneers, from Steinbeck's 'Grapes of Wrath' which provides the album's namesake to even further, the writings of Thoreaux or Walt Whitman as they chronicled what would become a modern fable. Take for example lines from the title track:
Now Tom said "Mom, wherever there's a cop beatin' a guy
Wherever a hungry newborn baby cries
Where there's a fight 'gainst the blood and hatred in the air
Look for me Mom I'll be there
Wherever there's somebody fightin' for a place to stand
Or decent job or a helpin' hand
Wherever somebody's strugglin' to be free
Look in their eyes Mom you'll see me."
Simplistic the words may be, but it is easy to begin imagining the campfire songs, the drumfires and wailing harmonicas that make up the inspiration for the album. Inspired by Maharidge's Journey to Nowhere
, it is not simply these lyrics, but their context and the sparse music that surrounds them that creates a minimal but enthralling listening experience.
This is not to say that the album is without fault. If left to play, many of the songs seem to blend too much into one another, losing the individual nature that stories of struggling migrants in 'Shinaloa Cowboys' or the simple touch of 'My Best Was Never Good Enough' really merits. Similarly, the drama whilst brilliantly written never quite catches the pure brilliance of 'Backstreets'. However, under no circumstances should the work on The Ghost of Tom Joad
be overlooked. If nothing else, the album provides a truly immersive texture and finds Springsteen's backwater dust-bowl sensibilities at their most earnest.
The Ghost of Tom Joad