In college, I came up with this sorta-BS distinction to explain some of my musical tastes: There was stuff I liked, and stuff I respected, and stuff that got both, and stuff that got neither. The concept made for scintillating imaginary conversation with all my imaginary girlfriends in imaginary coffee shops and record stores.
Sometimes, it still works. I respect The Ghost of Tom Joad album, but I don’t like it very much.
It’s not that I hate the acoustic Springsteen, either, although I do think he’s always made his best music with the E Street Band. It’s more that the Joad record specifically is starchy and sterile, like he’s trying so painfully to affect a Guthrie troubadour pose that he suppresses the fire that has always made his music special, whether folk or rock.
The other day, a cut from a Joad tour show came up on shuffle, a version of “Johnny 99” that blew me away. Springsteen was shredding his instrument, part percussion and part rhythm guitar, and it was full of fire. Contrast that with the reserved, staid performances on the actual Joad album, all quiet plunking and mumbled lyrics. You can even hear Springsteen’s voice affected by his Guthrie-esque phrasing on the few contemporaneous full-band recordings that are out there–“Blood Brothers” from the Greatest Hits disc sounds like almost another singer.
Nebraska, Devils and Dust, even We Shall Overcome–these are acoustic records with deep passion. You can hear the fire on every cut. Listen to any of the tracks on Nebraska and then listen to any of the tracks from Joad–take away the sense of fear, the raw production, the foreboding darkness of the Nebraska album, and you get the Joad album.
I don’t doubt that The Ghost of Tom Joad was a passion project for Springsteen; he doesn’t know how to make music any other way. For me, there’s just not enough of that passion on the record itself.
Rank the Rekkids: Bruce Springsteen
18. Human Touch
17. The Ghost of Tom Joad