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Tom Waits - Real Gone

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Artist: Tom Waits

Album: Real Gone

Label: Anti-

Review date: Nov. 2, 2004

Critics tend to break Tom Waits’ career into two distinct segments, the split occurring between 1980 (the underrated Heartattack and Vine) and 1983 (Swordfishtrombones) when Waits ditched his manager, producer, and label and revised his approach to writing, recording, and arranging. It’s a clear point of departure and one worth emphasizing – Waits adopted a more theatrical performance style, incorporated diverse and expressive sound elements, and broadened his narrative and emotional scope. Suddenly last-call piano rags and bourbon-soaked ballads were subsumed and expanded into delirious jigs and bloodshot tarantellas featuring a ribald cast of carnie barkers, conscripted dwarves, and backwoods murderers. For many, this shift was the defining transition in Waits’ career – the musical equivalent of Faulkner’s shift from decadent, romantic poetry to the radical experimentation of his Yoknapatawpha novels. There’s some truth to this, but what’s neglected is the enormous debt that Waits’ later period owes his earlier one – and in fact, one could make the same argument for Faulkner.

If there was a black-and-white qualitative divide between the characteristics of his pre-1983 period and those emphasized in his last 20 years of recording, Real Gone might plausibly be called Waits’ finest achievement. With its soupy production values, its cluttered percussive elements, its radical diminishment of melody and its incorporeal vocal aura, the record is Waits’ most extreme break from barstool troubadour mode. Insistent on its lack of piano (Waits’ bedrock instrument) Real Gone boldly declares its independence from the distant past by placing its most disorienting song first – “Top of the Hill,” a sci-fi, gut-bucket herky-jerk crammed impossibly full of sputtering vocal percussion, zig-zagging turntable work, wheezing kazoos, skeletal Muddy Waters blues guitar, and a crumbling Tower-of-Babel lyric delivery. Similar elements have dominated Waits songs in the past, but never at the total exclusion of previous forms.

Yet Real Gone is not Waits’ best work. It’s a strong effort, but a number of his records rank above it (including Rain Dogs, Frank’s Wild Years, and Bone Machine, his best). Each of these succeeds by blending Waits’ flamboyant, vaudevillian pizzazz with somber gravity: he stamps his foot like a crazed Rumpelstiltskin and scratches at the walls like a gothic apparition, but always circles back around to songs like “A Little Rain” and “Who Are You” and “House Where Nobody Lives” – piano bar standards in a world without piano bars. There’s only one real ballad on Real Gone, “The Day After Tomorrow,” a protest song that’s moving and pertinent but almost awkwardly so in the context of the album. Much of Real Gone has been stripped so bare instrumentally that its heavy accumulation of rhythmic noise – manipulated groans and grunts (“Metropolitan Glide”) what sounds like a cracking horsewhip (“Don’t Go Into The Barn”) – establishes a sustained, bristling mood that electrifies particular songs but bogs down the album as a whole.

“Hoist That Rag” is one of Real Gone’s irresistible successes, and it works largely due to a great guitar riff – something absent for much of the record. Marc Ribot (who has worked with Waits on-and-off for years) pounds out a repetitive jazz squiggle while a juggernaut of abstract crashes and bangs echoes all around. Waits is one of the few singers capable of singing a verse and a chorus like he’s two completely different people, and he does so here, delivering a demented sea shanty (“Just open fire as you hit the shore / All is fair in love and war”) that erupts into a raucous all-hands-on-deck barking of orders (“Hoist that rag!”). “Make it Rain” is classic Waits – over a barebones syncopated beat he howls with a bug-eyed energy akin to Screamin’ Jay Hawkins. “Shake It” is powered by an evil blues lick and a cacophony of hand claps. It traipses murkily through key changes, and Waits creaks and wheezes like something sex-crazed, eerie, possibly part-insect. On another Waits record, these rowdy numbers would be surrounded by sad-eyed laments and sober love letters – the two styles would play off one another, accentuating the extremes inherent in both. But Real Gone falls victim to one of the problems plaguing his 1999 record Mule Variations – the more downbeat tracks don’t ever justify their excessive lengths. “Sins of My Father,” “Dead and Lovely,” and “How’s It Gonna End” are all pleasant, low-key Waits tunes, but none of them sweep dramatically from acrobatic hysterics to devastating calm. Full of songs that are destined to be memorable, Real Gone only partially succeeds as a cohesive whole.

By Nathan Hogan

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