Hidden Gems: Bruce Springsteen’s Finest Work
Too often in music artist’s are put into a box by critics and listeners. Although it does not always happen, this has the possibility of putting limitations on both the artist and the listener. This blog’s purpose is to break down some of those walls by shining some light on albums that are not often associated with a popular artist. It seems like the albums that go under the radar are also the ones that can provide a whole new element to an artist, revealing things about him/her that can go unnoticed.
This particular post will focus on an album by Bruce Springsteen titled, The Ghost of Tom Joad. When most people think about Bruce Springsteen they tend to think about songs from his popular albums like Born to Run and Born in the U.S.A. These albums are great and deserve a blog to themselves to be dissected, but because of their popularity, so many other great albums of Springsteen go unappreciated. The Ghost of Tom Joad is certainly one that goes underappreciated. In my opinion, it is Bruce’s finest work, and it showcases his true artistic abilities better than any of his other albums.
The Ghost of Tom Joad is Bruce Springsteen’s eleventh studio album and was released in 1995. The Ghost of Tom Joad received positive critical success with Rolling Stone saying it was “Springsteen’s best album in 10 years” and also saying it is “among the bravest work anyone has given us this decade.” The album contains 12 songs, each a dramatic vignette about the struggles of life in America. Bruce shares stories of people who hardly get their story told, he tells dark stories of immigrants, criminals, and war veterans. These stories share a common theme in that the central characters are met with constant struggles, despite them trying to escape their situations. The album’s final track, “My Best Was Never Good Enough”, explains this concept well. It also hints at a key point of this album: that sometimes, no matter how hard you try, there is no guarantee of escaping a dark situation.
This is obviously not one of Bruce’s typical, upbeat, anthem-style albums. Instead, it is one that tells the stories of how unforgiving the world can be, especially in the United States. This album is entirely different from anything Bruce has released. It is not one that contains catchy beats that you could picture yourself chanting at one of his famous concerts. It is one that requires the audience to listen and be attentive to the stories being told. When he went on tour for this album, he played only in very small venues, enhancing the listening experience. To this day, it is extremely rare for Bruce to play a song from this album while on one of his arena filled tours. On the album, Bruce said this, “I want to make a record where I don’t have to play by the rules…have any hit singles or none of that stuff. I can make whatever music I want to make. I hadn’t done that in a real long time. I guess I just wanted to see if I could again.”
Each song on this album is very special and contributes to its overall success. However, there are a few tracks that perfectly represents this album and shows off the special songwriting ability of Bruce Springsteen. The first is the title track, “The Ghost of Tom Joad.” This song is definitely the most popular to come from this album, partly because of the popular arrangement of the song performed by rap-metal group Rage Against the Machine. The title of the song references to the main character of John Steinbeck’s novel, The Grapes of Wrath. Instead of taking place in Depression-era America, the song takes place in the 1990s. It is tough to tell from the way Springsteen writes, however, only making slight references to
give the audience about the date. I think that is the point of this song. To show how in some parts of America, not much has changed, and there are still people struggling to get by and make ends meet. The character in this song says he is “with the ghost of old Tom Joad” and this ghost always seems to be with him. Tom Joad represents fairness and equality, so to say he is with the “ghost” of him means that these qualities have faded away, and he is trying to search for those qualities to hopefully make the world a better place.
This song “Straight Time” is one of the few songs on this album that tells the story of a criminal. In this case, the song tells the story of an ex-con who has been out of prison for a few years and is trying to make up for his past mistakes by living a normal life. Bruce describes how hard this can be to do, and how criminals can never get rid of the judgment that gets cast on them by society. The lyrics describe how his own wife doesn’t even trust him, “Kitchen floor in the evening, tossin’ my little babies high.
Mary’s smilin’, but she watches me out of the corner of her eye.” The world outside of prison proves to be too hard for this character. The ending lyrics are slightly ambiguous, “In the basement, huntin’ gun and a hacksaw. Sip a beer and thirteen inches of barrel drop to the floor. Come home in the evening, can’t get the smell from my hands. Lay my head down on the pillow. And, go driftin’ off into foreign lands.” These lines either mean the character killed himself, or that he went out of committed another crime. Either way, we see him suffering and incapable to make it in life outside of prison.
This is a magnificent album filled with beautifully crafted stories about some harsh realities that we are still seeing in America today. It is an album that should be listened to by everyone, even if you don’t consider yourself a fan of Bruce Springsteen. Personally, as a huge Bruce Springsteen fan, this is my favorite album of his. This is different from anything he has ever released. Bruce employs his brilliant songwriting talents on stories that needed to be told, even though they are hard to listen to. The simple arrangement and focused vocals make it an album that is easy to listen to and be heavily impacted by.