The Good: Moments of vocals, A handful of lyrics
The Bad: Murky instrumental accompaniment, Mumbling vocals, Produced to obscure lyrics.
The Basics: The Ghost Of Tom Joad stands as an album where Bruce Springsteen struggles to make his words comprehensible opposite indistinct instrumental accompaniment.
[There is a big meme in the art community going around now called "Draw This Again." In the meme, artists illustrate how they have grown in their chosen medium by putting side-by-side pictures of art they created in the past and now. My wife had the great idea that I should do something similar with my reviewing. So, for 2017, I will be posting occasional "Review This Again" reviews, where I revisit subjects I had previously reviewed and review them again, through a lens of increased age, more experience, and - for some - greater familiarity with the subject. This review is one such review, where I am re-experiencing The Ghost Of Tom Joad after many years and with more experience as both a reviewer and one who has heard much of the Bruce Springsteen library. The album was originally reviewed here!]
Many years ago, when I was still writing for a now-extinct website, there were very few reviews of mine in the music category that garnered a lot of readers and many comments. The lone exception that I can easily recall is the Bruce Springsteen album The Ghost Of Tom Joad. When I first reviewed The Ghost Of Tom Joad, the album was more than a decade old and I received dozens of comments on my review, which was not an overly favorable one, which surprised me. Now, The Ghost Of Tom Joad is more than twenty years old and I popped it in for my Review This Again project because so far in my Review This Again project, I had not re-listened to an album I had originally panned.
Now on my third listen through The Ghost Of Tom Joad after not hearing the album for around a decade - and without re-reading my original review - I am wondering how many Bruce Springsteen fans would actually rally to the defense of the album now. If asked to describe The Ghost Of Tom Joad, the word that comes instantly to mind is "murky." And I am not certain there is an actual tune on any of the songs that could be hummed if one tries; The Ghost Of Tom Joad is one long chord with occasional strumming and even more infrequent harmonica parts held together by Bruce Springsteen quietly mumbling his way through his own lines.
With only 12 songs, occupying 50:16 on c.d., The Ghost Of Tom Joad is short and unmemorable, though it is very much the work of Bruce Springsteen. Springsteen wrote all of the songs and he provides the lead vocals on every track. Springsteen plays instruments - guitar, harmonica, and keyboards - on each song and he is credited as a co-producer on the album. The Ghost Of Tom Joad is very much his musical vision.
Instrumentally, The Ghost Of Tom Joad is quiet and subtle, with no strong tunes. The keyboard and light guitars are consistent slow and quiet ballads from track to track, making for very little distinction on the album's songs. The Ghost Of Tom Joad is an album that is exceptionally easy to fall asleep to because it never quite breaks out with a sound that is distinct or interesting. Instead, the songs blend together in the musical equivalent of anonymity.
Similarly, Bruce Springsteen's smooth and gravely vocals are presented in the same way, track to track. Springsteen mumbles and sings his way through his songs, with the instrumentals being produced to easily compete with his more whispery voice. The result is that listeners have to strain to try to hear why Springsteen is singing and even his longer-held notes never hit a crescendo. Instead, even Springsteen's harmonica outshines his voice.
On the lyric front, The Ghost Of Tom Joad is lacking in anthemic lines that stand out while Springsteen is singing. Instead, The Ghost Of Tom Joad is a mix of musical storysongs that work to create characters and settings to present his themes. While lines like "I got my discharge from Fort Irwin / Took a place on the San Diego county line / Felt funny bein' a civilian again . . . I was still tryin' to find my way back whole / Went to work for the INS on the line / With the California border patrol" ("The Line") work, they are hardly universal sentiments.
Springsteen manages to make one superlative song about relationships on The Ghost Of Tom Joad. "My Best Was Never Good Enough" is sad and poetic as it explores insecurity in relationships through the use of popular cliches. When Springsteen sings "'Now don't try for a home run baby / If you can get the job done with a hit / Remember a quitter never wins / And a winner never quits / The sun don't shine on a sleepin' dog's ass.' / And all the rest of that stuff / But for you my best was never good enough" ("My Best Was Never Good Enough"), it is hard not to feel for his musical protagonist.
But not all of Springsteen's musical storysongs are exceptional on The Ghost Of Tom Joad. Springsteen does not wow his listeners with the rhymes "Well my daddy worked the furnaces / Kept 'em hotter than hell / I come home from 'Nam worked my way to scarfer / A job that'd suit the devil as well / Taconite coke and limestone / Fed my children and make my pay / Them smokestacks reachin' like the arms of God / Into a beautiful sky of soot and clay" ("Youngstown"), even if they are not the worst sentiments ever sung!
The Ghost Of Tom Joad is much more indistinct than it is bad, but most of the album is thoroughly unmemorable, which makes it much tougher sell than even a Bruce Springsteen fan might hope. The best track is "My Best Was Never Good Enough," the low point is probably the thoroughly unmemorable "Straight Time."
For other Review This Again reviews, please check out:
Falling Into You - Celine Dion
The Times They Are A-Changin' - Bob Dylan
Minutes To Midnight - Linkin Park
For an organized listing of all the albums and singles I have reviewed, please check out my Music Review Index Page!
© 2017 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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