Rank the Rekkids: The Ghost of Tom Joad

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
16.
15.
14.
13.
12.
11.
10.
9.
8.
7.
6.
5.
4.
3.
2.
1.

 

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Rank the Rekkids: Human Touch

Much has been written about the process by which Springsteen came to release two albums on the same day in 1992. The story goes that he labored over a first set of songs for a year or two; in an effort to finish that record, he went into the studio and instead of recording just one song to finish Human Touch, he emerged with a second set of ten songs, released as Lucky Town.

One of Human Touch’s biggest flaws is that in its worst moments, it sounds labored and overthought, like Springsteen tried to compensate for the absence of his E Street Band by layering in synth hooks and support vocals (Sam Moore guests on a whopping four tracks, only one of which, “Roll of the Dice,” is among the album’s stronger cuts). Certainly the lengthy and occasionally torturous production processes of past Springsteen records had produced some amazing results; Springsteen probably never thought twice about taking 18 to 24 months to make a record.

That the better album (Lucky Town) emerged through a far more speedy writing and recording process speaks volumes about the state of Springsteen’s artistic muse at this stage in his career. He once told an interviewer that “I tried it [writing happy songs] in the early ’90s and it didn’t work; the public didn’t like it.”

There’s truth there, but only a sliver. It comes off more as sour grapes from Springsteen, wounded by the tepid critical reception of the album. The reality is that the public probably would have liked GOOD happy songs, but that these songs didn’t make the grade.

Springsteen is right, though, in that the early nineties marked the first time he’d sat down to write new music with a measure of personal fulfillment–a wife he loved, a new baby, superstar status, financial security–all of which had eluded him throughout the seventies and eighties. So instead, he satisfied his hunger with endless recording sessions and marathon gigs.

It’s not an uncommon problem for creative minds–many writers, from novelists to songwriters to screenwriters, rely upon a certain level of inner turmoil to provide grist for the mill. When it’s gone, there’s always that nagging feeling–would I be doing better work if I weren’t satisfied, or healthy, or mentally stable?

And yet, Springsteen did fine work once he’d cleared the gunk out of his system. Lucky Town is a great little album. It’s a portrait of exactly who Springsteen was at the moment, or at least, where he pictured himself–happy, satisfied, but still wondering what would come next.

It’s just too bad we had to hear the gunk he cleared out on its own separate album. It’s interesting, too, when you consider where Springsteen headed after this dual release–a big world tour, yes, with an anonymous cadre of session players–but then, not much of anything. Until he adopted what amounted to almost a character, in the folk troubador singing songs of American anguish on The Ghost of Tom Joad, and then remained reluctant to return to his E Street compatriots until a few years after that.

I don’t necessarily think the Human Touch album would have been redeemed by the E Street Band. Maybe working with those players would have forced him to exercise a stronger editorial hand, meaning that some of these songs would have never seen release? Nor do I think it’s completely without redeeming moments–the title track was a hit single, and deservedly so; co-writer Roy Bittan captured a little of the E Street mystique in a piano riff that supposedly inspired Springsteen to write “Roll of the Dice.” “Man’s Job” is catchy as hell, and “57 Channels” is a wicked little piece of satire, even if it’s aimed at a large and obvious target.

The rest of Human Touch is music Springsteen probably had to make–to clear his cobwebs, to find his way without his band, to determine what he wanted to write about and how he wanted to shape the material. I don’t necessarily think it’s music we had to hear, but I’m glad he found his way back to form eventually.