Bruce Springsteen's 1995 album The Ghost of Tom Joad was an odd creature. Largely acoustic during an era of loud rock music—much as Nebraska was an (almost) entirely acoustic collection released during the heyday of British synth-pop—it was his only album of new material released in the 90s, after the disappointments of the twin LPs Human Touch and Lucky Town at the beginning of the decade.
It was a good album—considerably better than Human Touch, although that's not exactly saying much—but (despite winning a Grammy for Best Contemporary Folk Album) connected with the general public even less than the Human Touch and Lucky Town albums had, and no surprise: it can't have helped the album's commercial prospects that the economy in 1995 was far more robust than it had been back in 1982.
But staying in the musical realm, The Ghost of Tom Joad was, like Nebraska, quiet and downbeat. Unlike Nebraska, however, its somber lyrics weren't at least occasionally leavened by more uptempto tracks such as "Johnny 99" or the more lighthearted "Open All Night." Perhaps even more to the point, Nebraska, for all its dark tone, didn't skimp on the tunes. They weren't the singalong good time melodies of "Hungry Heart" or "Dancing in the Dark," but they were hummable and catchy. The music for many of the songs on The Ghost of Tom Joad felt somehow even more skeletal than the simple single fingerpicked guitar on Nebraska. Some of the best songs—"Highway 29" or "Straight Time," for instance—took repeated listenings to sink in, a common enough occurrence for a Springsteen song...but that was usually lyrically; here, even the music took effort to dive into. But on several of the songs—especially the penultimate track, the lyrically excellent but musically interminable "Galveston Bay," the only 17 hour, 29 minute and three second long song in Springsteen's entire career—Springsteen seems to have actually forgotten the need for melody at all.
That's not the case with the album's final track. "My Best Was Never Good Enough" may be the single catchiest tune on the entire LP. And unlike some of the more challenging songs, such as "Sinaloa Cowboys" or "The Line," the lyrics grab the listener's attention from the beginning. That's because they're composed almost entirely of cliches.
It's deliberate, of course—a writer of Springsteen's attention to detail doesn't open with a line like "every cloud has a silver lining, every dog has his day" without being fully aware of what he's doing—and enjoyable, as the song piles stock phrase on stock phrase to achieve a Tower of Babylon of pat, empty platitudes. Combined with the catchy melody, it's an agreeable respite from the almost overwhelmingly grim timbre of the rest of the album.
The problem is...it doesn't work. Or, rather, it does, to some extent, but not well enough. The whole is no more than the sum of the parts. There's no revelation, and even what was supposed to be some sort of final twist at the end ends up being...nothing. It's not even sound and fury. It's just sound, albeit a mildly pleasant one. It tries for both humor and depth and doesn't quite achieve either.
Had "My Best Was Never Good Enough" been released as a b-side, it would have been utterly delightful. Or Springsteen could have saved it for the subsequent tour, which saw him playing several similar songs live, in a justified attempt to pierce the darkness of the (outstanding) shows; alongside songs such as "Sell It and They Will Come," "It's the Little Things that Count" or the filthy "Pilgrim in the House of Love," "My Best Was Never Good Enough" would have been a highlight. But it's simply not up to the task of closing a Bruce Springsteen album: ironical, really, given the title. It was good...but not good enough. Not nearly good enough. Because it wasn't his best—it was no "New York City Serenade" or "Jungleland," no "Reason to Believe" or "My Hometown," certainly no "Wreck on the Highway" or "My Beautiful Reward." What it was was simply the weakest original song Springsteen had yet closed an album with. Which is a shame. The Ghost of Tom Joad deserved better.
Every cloud has a silver lining, every dog has his day
She said, "Now don't say nothin' if you don't have something nice to say."
The tough, now they get going, when the going gets tough
But for you my best was never good enough
"Now don't try for a home run, baby, if you can get the job done with a hit"
Remember, "A quitter never wins and a winner never quits"
"The sun don't shine on a sleepin' dog's ass"
And all the rest of that stuff
But for you my best was never good enough
"If God gives you nothin' but lemons, then you make some lemonade"
"The early bird catches the fuckin' worm
Rome wasn't built in a day"
"Now life's like a box of chocolates, you never know what you're going to get"
"Stupid is as stupid does and all the rest of that shit"
Come on pretty baby, call my bluff
'Cause for you my best was never good enough