“Shelter line stretchin’ ‘round the corner
Welcome to the new world order
Families sleepin’ in their cars in the southwest
No home, no job, no peace, no rest”
I’m starting to think that the poor reception that greeted Human Touch and Lucky Town kinda knocked Bruce’s confidence a little heavier than he’d let on. Going by the fact that, at the time, he was still actively fighting depression and going through a lot of personal changes, it’s not that big a surprise. One could imagine that, were he feeling more resilient mentally he may have said “nuts” to the negative reviews, gone back to the woodshed and kicked it up a notch. Instead, during the period between the end of what’s now called ‘The Other Band’ and the start of the E Street Reunion tours precious little of what Springsteen wrote saw the light of day (pun intended).
Now to me – and I hope others – this is a real burr because what recorded material from 1994 onwards has reached the eager ears of listeners is gold and does show that the man was more than capable of saying “nuts” and going back to work. There’s an entire album’s worth (close to two*) of material that was shelved and will likely never be released. There’s been some hints as to what it contains – like the E Street reworking of ‘Waiting on the End of the World‘ – but it’s likely to remain unheard save a (much prayed for) Tracks 2**emerging and all you need to is cast a look at the material Bruce did release from that era, all with a certain understated charm, to know why we’re missing out: ‘Streets of Philadelphia’, ‘Secret Garden’, ‘Blood Brothers’ (the latter two written during a run of inspiration ahead of and during the E Street reunion for Greatest Hits), ‘Missing‘, ‘Lift Me Up‘, ‘Dead Man Walking’, even ‘Without You‘ has a joyful charm, ‘Nothing Man’ originated during this period… and then there’s this thing he wrote called ‘The Ghost of Tom Joad’.
‘The Ghost of Tom Joad’ was written around the time of Greatest Hits and Bruce even took the band through a few takes but, much like elusive ‘Electric Nebraska Sessions’, it wasn’t right. So, instead of the presumed course after that compilation’s reunion, Bruce took a sharp left: he assembled a group of songs about the American South West and, for the most part, embellished them with little more than his voice and some delicate guitar patterns weaving through the odd keyboard drone (something that started with ‘One Step Up’ and featured heavily in his 90s output to good effect).
And what a group of songs they are***. More restrained and narrow focused than his earlier solo (masterpiece) Nebraska, these songs actively incorporated silence and hushed phrasing (so much so that the tour that followed was often referred to as the ‘Shut the Fuck Up’ tour) to create memorable and affecting stories that lingered. Listening back to this one I’d forgotten just how powerful some of these are, take the tale in ‘Sinaloa Cowboys’ as an example:
Here the stories are perfectly succinct and the delicate touches of instrumentation mean that in their simplicity they achieve what the over-worked attempts of Devils & Dust failed to: stories with bite with music as a subtle backdrop rather than focus.
There are four songs on The Ghost of Tom Joad, title track included, for which Bruce assembled a small backing band – including Gary Tallent and Danny Federici – to add a little colour to the sonic palette and these serve as beautiful counterpoint to the otherwise stark, bitter-sweet beauty of songs like ‘The Line’. ‘Straight Time’ and ‘Dry Lightning’ may not linger as much as, say, the powerfully stark ‘Highway 29’ which could slot right at home on Nebraska, but the title track and ‘Youngstown’ are both essential Bruce songs.
‘Youngstown’ has become such a torch-burning, electrically recast centre-point of E Street band shows since the Reunion tour that it’s easy to forget just how strong the original is:
The other reason Ghost of Tom Joad is an essential part of Springsteen’s catalogue is that it finds him rediscovering his voice. Not the hushed tones of the vocals but the no-linger inward focus. This was Bruce looking for inspiration outside of the men vs women themes he’d used for the previous three (released, that is) albums, but looking at the struggles of others – as he says; ““the songs on it added up to a reaffirmation of the best of what I do. The record was something new, but was also a reference point to the things I tried to stand for and still wanted to be about as a songwriter.””
Received to slighter commercial success but pretty strong reviews with Rolling Stone reckoning it “among the bravest work that anyone has given us this decade” (and a Grammy for Best Contemporary Folk Album), it perhaps receives a harsher view in retrospect from some corners than it deserves. Some criticisms fired at this album focus around the hushed, minimal delivery or the lack of fire and brimstone given to the recorded versions of songs like ‘Ghost of Tom Joad’ and ‘Youngstown’ compared to their now live rendering but, if you ask me, they’re missing the point. The songs on this album (something of a concept album in that respect) all focus on the- as his own website puts it – ” poverty, immigration and the brittle troubles of Americans and Mexicans in the Southwest.” The desert can be a cold, bleak place with vast empty spaces. The Ghost of the Tom Joad, sonically, is the sound of these oft-broken characters staring into that space after a day in the cruel, blinding light of its heat with acceptance / surrender of the inevitable. It’s not a time for boot, stomping rock and, in the brittle, fragility of its delivery of these stories Ghost of Tom Joad remains an understated and captivating masterpiece.
Highlights: ‘Ghost of Tom Joad’, ‘Youngstown’, ‘Highway 29’, ‘Sinaloa Cowboys’, ‘The Line’, ‘Galveston Bay’.
Not so highlights: The exclusion of ‘Brothers Under The Bridge’ which could’ve elevated this album to virtually unimpeachable. But then everybody needs a ‘Blind Wille McTell’.
*Depending on how much different side-men know: Bruce has spoken about an album of more relationship songs in the minimal ‘Streets of Philadelphia’ style, Shane Fontayne has given interviews that hint at yet another. Could just be crossed wires, could be another well of unheard material. He was certainly clocking up recording sessions during this period.
** At the time of Tracks 75% of Bruce’s material was unreleased. Even the number of songs settled on for Tracks was then culled from 100 to 66. What was on those extra two discs? Surely more than went on to make up The Promise and The Ties That Bind?
***Here, again, though he wrote some 22 songs. There’s tales of two albums’ worth of songs – one with the band backing – being recorded. Some would pop up on tour, some never to be sung again. FFS.