Even for Tom Waits, a man who has made a stunning career of
documenting the underbelly of the American night, his latest album,
Real Gone, is perpetually nocturnal. Waits has made the drunken,
grimy street life into haunting derelict art, from his tin-pan
alley days on Closing Time to his twin opuses Swordfishtrombones
and Rain Dogs.
In each step of his evolution as singer, songwriter and icon of
the night, Tom Waits has had two things: his gnarled
undertaker’s rasp and his sometimes-crusty,
Well, call it a midlife crisis, call it a challenge, but Waits
ditches the trusty keyboards on Real Gone and tosses in various
guitarists, percussionists and even his own son on the turntables.
Of course, the first few listens feel almost alien, but even the
most jaded piano lovers can’t deny the instant draw of
“Hoist That Rag” and its dirty-flamenco howls.
Every guest on the album knows they’re playing the
background to Waits and his grotesque yarns that call to mind the
fading hours after midnight. He’s always been able to detail
the sinister acts of man — not through the over-the-top
hyperbole — but by the power of imagery and suggestion. On
“Don’t Go Into That Barn,” Waits channels the
primal fear of the wilderness into, “And I pointed above the
trees / That’s when I heard my name in a scream / Coming from
the woods, out there / I let the dog run off my chain / I locked my
door real good with a chair.” When he gets spooky, its not
cookie-cutter chills; it’s the cold shower of dread that only
the man himself (and that amazing rasp) can provide.
It wouldn’t be a proper Waits album without some
unbelievable, nonsensical lyrics and a slightly overwrought spoken
word section, but all these patches of self-indulgence are crushed
under the enormous center of dark energy on Gone. And with
stripped, almost naked guitar riffs and sparing use of bells and
other studio novelties, the weight of the album becomes that much
more elegant, and that much more direct.
It’s been a wonderful year for the human voice in pop
music. Bjork, Brian Wilson and now Waits have all proven that even
in an age of unparalleled electronic proficiency in the studio, the
singular most powerful tool in music is still the voice. For Waits,
he’s taken his weathered, shaman-like howl and wrapped it
around some of the more twisted songs in his catalogue and one of
his most overtly political. “Day After Tomorrow” is the
chilling centerpiece of the album and is perhaps one of the darkest
and disturbing anti-war songs since the post-punk group Suicide
created the Vietnam-era opus “Frankie Teardrop.”
Even if ditching his trademark piano was a one-shot deal, some
rigorous training method designed to push his songwriting and
arranging skills or just some bizarre trick, Waits shows that his
feverish rasp is far more than a trick. It’s a spell.
Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars.