Eleven years had passed since the Boss had released one of rock music’s most successful albums of all time. Matching the commercial success of “Born in the U.S.A.” was an impossible task that weighed heavy on him. in 1982 after 3 very successful albums in a row, Springsteen shocked his record company by turning in a sparse, all acoustic folk album “Nebraska”. The result was an unabashed success, many consider this still to be Springsteen’s best album
He turned once again to this acoustic folk formula on his 11th studio album “The Ghost of Tom Joad”. Although not as successful commercially as “Nebraska” it was critically acclaimed. Although it does contain the same underlying theme of being a social commentary on america’s blue-collar and downtrodden. This record would snap Bruce’s string of eight consecutive top 5 albums by failing to crack to top 10, peaking at #11.
The album’s title track is an anthem to the disenfranchised and down and out, with references to Tom Joad (the protagonist of John Steinbeck’s novel “The Grapes of Wrath”) and america’s migration to the southwestern United States. This song was later covered in a rave up version by the band Rage Against The Machine. This song sets a dark and ominous tone for the listener.
“Youngstown” actually utilizes the full band treatment, albeit with a subdued sound. This song shows why the Boss, at his best is a brilliant storytelling lyricist maybe unequaled by few, if any. It tells the story of the rise and fall of Youngstown, Ohio, over several generations, from the discovery of iron ore nearby in 1803 through the decline of the steel industry in the area in the 1970s.The song’s story is a narrative of one family’s history as steelworkers in Youngstown. The narrator of the song himself is a Vietnam War veteran and his father fought in World War II. Both also worked in the steel mills. The narrator had worked himself up to the job of “scarfer”, a difficult but low-paying job that entails torching the steel to remove imperfections. Although he describes the job as one “that would suit the devil well,” it is enough to put food on the table, pay his debts and provide a sense of purpose. As the song concludes , the scope expands beyond Youngstown to other areas that were devastated by the decline of the steel industry, including the Monongahela Valley, Minnesota’s Mesabi iron range and Appalachia.
“Straight Time” tales of a man’s struggle to stay away from his criminal inclination while out on parole.”Sinaloa Cowboys” is a beautiful ballad of two mexican brothers who immigrate to America and work in the fields. They leave the fields to work a meth lab when they are offered more money. It tells of the dangers they face and of the eventual explosion that takes one of the brothers lives.”The Line” is a narrative of a veteran, who upon his military discharge takes a job working the line for the INS Border Patrol in southern California. These are just glimpses into the bleak world of desperation that Springsteen paints on this album. As I write this I’m afraid that I may have rated this album far too low…