Bruce Springsteen has never held an actual job, but 18 years of watching the blue collar struggles of his family and friends and an empathetic streak that originates at his very core gave him a lifetime of material and an emotionally satisfying way to translate it. Slaid Cleaves has tapped into a similar vein of inspiration over the course of his three decades in music, which has included busking in Ireland, winning the New Folk competition at the Kerrville Folk Festival and recording a dozen albums detailing the daily frustrations of life, love and the in-betweens that every human experiences. The only differences between the two are their modes of expression - rock icon versus acoustic troubadour - and their bankroll at the end of the day. That and the fact the Cleaves has had real jobs; he was once a pharmaceutical test subject.
Cleaves doesn't really care about the payday because his end game has always been the song itself. With "Ghost on the Car Radio," Cleaves continues to examine big issues refracted through the lens of a small town perspective, from the old-car-as-metaphor-for-a-well-lived-life moan of "Primer Gray" to the cynicism of age lamenting the loss of the idealism of youth on "If I Had a Heart" to the Roger McGuinn-meets-Steve Forbert drive and passion of the album's ostensible title track, "Already Gone."
But Cleaves is just as comfortable with a cinemascopic palette, as evidenced by "Drunken Barber's Hand," where he touches on sonic and lyrical reference points like Tom Waits, Lucinda Williams and Pat McDonald while trying to explain the madness of an especially mad world. There is little on "Ghost on the Car Radio" that Slaid Cleaves hasn't done before, but the effortless way that he seems to capture lightning in a bottle each and every time is a testament to his talent, dedication and honesty as a songwriter. You might even call it, dare we say, Springsteenesque.