He wisely begins the program with the title track, a blatant reference to the hero of The Grapes Of Wrath, already celebrated by the likes of Woody Guthrie. Starting with a blast of harmonica and swelling to a musical backing not unlike Dire Straits, it eases the listener in. However, even this low-key track is one of the louder songs on the album. A pair of doomed individuals revive the Nebraska connection; the narrator of “Straight Time” struggles with life outside prison, and the difference in occupation makes it clear he’s not the wayward shoe salesman on “Highway 29”. “Youngstown” is whispered in much the same mood until the band joins in after the first chorus. That tale of hard times in Ohio is balanced against the sad plight of Mexican immigrants seeking their fortune cooking meth in “Sinaloa Cowboys”. Somehow they evaded the border guard who narrates “The Line”, most likely because they weren’t a raven-haired beauty named Louisa.
One of those immigrants might have ended up smuggling cocaine to “Balboa Park”, and while the lyrics of “Dry Lightning” don’t suggest it, there’s still a south-of-the-border lilt to the accompaniment (and the vivid image of the “piss-yellow sun”). “The New Timer” exists to prove that there is no romance to riding the rails, with every “sir” aside bringing us back to Nebraska. Its bleakness enhances the hope running through “Across The Border”, and even its arrangement would make it a good place to end. But Bruce had more to say, with the lengthy anticlimax of “Galveston Bay” and the much shorter “My Best Was Never Good Enough”—a wonderful title, but unfortunately just a string of pointed clichés delivered in a cartoony voice.
The Ghost Of Tom Joad is not the kind of album that gets blasted from car stereos, or would even get rotation in a record store. It took a lot of balls to release it at the height of the holiday buying season. That it’s not as pointedly bad as Human Touch keeps it from failing; we give him credit for creating music on his own terms, and remembering to keep it simple. His rhymes don’t always deliver on the stories he’s telling, but that can get worked out on the road. And it would, first on a solo tour, then later with a band. (Soozie Tyrell features prominently on the violin here, and would continue to do so.) In all, probably the worst thing we can say about the album is the cover art. And maybe the goatee. (Well, it was the ’90s.)
Bruce Springsteen The Ghost Of Tom Joad (1995)—3