BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN: THE GHOST OF TOM JOAD (1995)
1) The Ghost Of Tom Joad; 2) Straight Time; 3) Highway 29; 4) Youngstown; 5) Sinaloa Cowboys; 6) The Line; 7) Balboa Park; 8) Dry Lightning; 9) The New Timer; 10) Across The Border; 11) Galveston Bay; 12) My Best Was Never Good Enough.
Perhaps another solo acoustic album, a return to the simpler-than-simple values of Nebraska, was precisely what Bruce needed at the time — to help cleanse out some of that «generic rock» and «adult contemporary» residue that had accumulated to disturbing levels over the previous ten years. Maybe so, and maybe it is even so intricately construed that there would be no Rising without Tom Joad, no reconvening of the E Street Band after a fresh start, and, oh gosh, no Tom Morello fireworks on subsequent live and studio reinventions of the title track. And you have to admit, Tom Morello fireworks are exciting, even if you find them silly.
Nevertheless, to like this album you have to be very, very warm to the idea of solo acoustic Springsteen — without the pop-rock hooks, without The Big Man, without the devilish energy, and, I have to say, without most of the things that make a Boss out of a mere Bruce. Yes, «naked Bruce» is a very positive, humanistic soul, and his spiritual connection to Tom Joad and all those waiting for the chimes of freedom is natural and almost certainly sincere. But last time I checked, The Ghost Of Tom Joad was billed as a new musical album with twelve new songs on it, and this is what we are here for, songs. Melodies. Moods. Chords. And a little freshness.
Instead of this, we get hardcore — real hardcore. Aside from the instrumentation, which is actually a little less sparse than on Nebraska (some occasional percussion, some occasional accordeon, and a lot of hazy, foggy synthesizer background, fortunately, pushed very deep in the background so it does not even begin to threaten to overshadow the gentle guitar picking), this is a record that serves one and only one noble, but narrow purpose: make you, the listening receptacle, deeply feel the sad and lonesome plight of the common man. First, the ghost of Tom Joad is summoned as a non-living witness (and potential protector), and then, one by one, we go through a gallery of characters, already known to us all too well, I'm afraid — but this time, there is no getting away from the characters, because nothing stands in the way between them and you. Nothing except a little bit of soft, quiet guitar plucking to get you in the mood. Well, there has to be some difference between listening to this record or to an audiobook version of Grapes Of Wrath (personally, I'd still prefer the latter).
Okay, so it might be fine not to have any original melodies. A few of these songs are almost exactly the same, and many more just recycle the chords of gazillions of folk tunes that people were composing and re-composing before Woody Guthrie, after Woody Guthrie, and being Woody Guthrie. It is not technically impossible, though, to reinvent these melodies one more time in some new context. But that is not Bruce's point here — no, the point is to strip them down to the barest of the bare, cut straight to the heart and stay there, wiggling the knife a little to the left and a little to the right, until the very end. The problem is, when you just do it like that, the process is not very interesting to watch.
It is useless to discuss these songs one by one: all of them set and hold exactly the same gray melancholic mood, mixing a little bit of hope for a brighter future to the desolation and desperation of present conditions. Are the lyrics any good? Sometimes they are, sometimes they aren't; even for an undoubtedly talented person such as Bruce, it gets hard to find new ways to state the same common old truths (so sometimes he resorts to almost literally quoting Steinbeck). It really does not matter, though: be they randomly strung together bunches of dusty clichés or a genuine verbal revolution, they are always delivered in exactly the same way, and you know what way it is. The way you'd expect a singer to sing after he'd just finished unloading a couple of trucks or climbed out of a coal mine. Nothing bad about that, but... maybe not for 50 minutes without a single second of respite.
Unfortunately, I do not subscribe to the idea that anything (a) acoustic, (b) relating to the plight of the simple person, (c) «composed» and performed by Bruce Springsteen should automatically be praised to high heaven because it is so sincere, emotional, and deep. Sincere, perhaps; but way too predictable and formulaic to deserve to be called emotional, and «deep» only if you have had no prior experiences with folk music whatsoever. Moreover, I have a gut feeling that with the level of the man's undeniable talent, he could crank another Ghost Of Tom Joad maybe once every couple of months, and would we be supposed to cheer every single goddamn time? My decision, made up a long time ago, still stands: Bruce Springsteen has too little diversity, subtlety, or (very importantly) sense of humor in his bones to make successful acoustic albums. At least Nebraska had an element of surprise to it (and, actually, some bits of composing — ʽAtlantic Cityʼ alone is worth Ghost in its entirety), but this here is just totally pedestrian stuff, and my conscience will not bother me if I reinforce a thumbs down judgement here. Just do yourself a favor and go read (or re-read) some Steinbeck instead. Or hear the electric version of the title track with Morello — at least, you know, that's entertainment.