It's a quiet record, and for the most part gets left out of the discussion when the subject turns to Bruce's greatest work. Few mention it in the same breath as "Nebraska," its acoustic counterpart in the Springsteen catalog. But like "Nebraska," "Tom Joad" is an overtly political record, reflective of the time it was released.
In the mid-nineties, Bruce was still living in California, and I've often thought that "California" could have served as an appropriate title for the album. For many years now California has been the bluest of the nation's blue states, but back in the mid-nineties it wasn't that way. The state had a Republican governor (Pete Wilson), albeit a relatively moderate one. And in an election that seems almost incredible today, in November 1994 the Republican party actually captured a majority in the 80-member State Assembly. This began an assault on affirmative action in the state that would culminate in 1996 with the passage of Proposition 209, which amended the state constitution to prohibit the consideration of race, sex or ethnicity in decisions affecting public employment, public contracting and public education.
Although "Tom Joad" doesn't specifically address those issues, it's fair to say that the album as a whole is a response to the political atmosphere of the time - songs that depict a land of little opportunity, one rife with enormous gaps between those with and those without. One standout is "Balboa Park:"
He lay his blanket underneath the freeway
As the evening sky grew dark
Took a sniff of toncho from his coke can
And headed through Balboa Park
Where the men in their Mercedes
Come nightly to employ
In the cool San Diego evening
The services of the border boys
He grew up near the Zona Norte
With the hustlers and smugglers he hung out with
He swallowed their balloons of cocaine
Brought 'em across the Twelfth Street strip
Sleeping in a shelter
If the night got too cold
Runnin' from the migra
Of the border patrol
In the words of Mikal Gilmore,
"It's a record about people who do not abide by life's ruins; it's a collection of dark tales about dark men who are cut off from the purposes of their own hearts and the prospects of their own lives. On this album almost none of the characters get out with both their bodies and spirits intact, and the few who do are usually left with only frightful desolate prayers as their solace."And yet, there remains hope that in this country, people will find their land of hope and dreams. In "Across the Border," Bruce closes the almost achingly beautiful song with these lines:
For what are we
Without hope in our hearts
That someday we'll drink from God's blessed waters
And eat the fruit from the vine
I know love and fortune will be mine
Somewhere across the border
For me, what sets "Tom Joad" apart from "Nebraska" is in the power and beauty of its music. These are not tunes that are going to get you tapping your foot or looking for the closest dance floor, but they reward the patient listener with a soundscape that is perfectly appropriate for the tales that are being told.
It's a great album - an album well worth saluting on the occasion of its 20th anniversary.