An industrial clanking, eerie atmospherics and then that voice – a mysterious, growling, croaking instrument completely unlike anything you’ve ever heard. The overall effect is unsettling, strange, mysterious and utterly compelling. Yep, Tom Waits is back.
Waits has been one of the most idiosyncratic voices of American music of the last 30 years. While never approaching anything like commercial success, his albums have been required listening for anybody who appreciates unpredictable, creative music. Real Gone is his first album since the double release of Alice and Blood Money and marks a departure for Waits in that his trademark piano is completely absent.
The emphasis here is on percussion, with no keyboards to be heard anywhere, and some of the tracks even featuring Waits’ guttural vocals filling in for drums – possibly the least likely human beatbox you’ll ever hear. As you may guess, none of this is particularly easy listening, but Waits’ stuff never is. This is challenging music that brings deeper rewards with repeated listening.
As ever, Waits’ voice is the centrepiece of the record. Raw, croaking and completely unmistakeable, it may not be the prettiest thing to listen to but it brings the songs here to life. Whether it be muttering through the spoken word vignette of Circus, or yelping during the blues sea-shanty of Hoist That Rag, Waits grabs the listener’s ear and doesn’t let go.
Musically, he’s as varied as ever. There’s primal blues (Top Of The Hill), stately ballads (Dead And Lovely) and almost commercial rock (Make It Rain). Sometimes, it’s so raw it sails dangerously close to becoming unlistenable, as on the thankfully brief Clang Boom Steam. Mostly though, the ballads are heart-wrenchingly gorgeous and the more upbeat numbers are the most accessible he’s done in years.
Where this album really departs from Waits’ previous work though is in his lyrics. While still pretty obtuse, it’s possible to detect some political comment on some of the songs here. Sins Of The Father, a ten minute masterpiece, could be referring to George W Bush and the ‘election’ of 2000 (“Everybody knows that the game was rigged, justice wears suspenders and a powdered wig”), while the beautiful Day After Tomorrow is a letter from a soldier at war in a foreign country. Given current events, it’s unbelievably poignant, but Waits never hectors, only paints a timeless, and all too human, portrait.
Waits still has his eye for character sketches as well. One of the many highlights of the album, Circus, has Waits describing the characters of a travelling circus, introducing us to people such as One Eyed Myra, Yodelling Elaine, and a woman with a “tattoo gun made out of a cassette motor and a guitar string”. Musically, it shares the feeling of terrifying dread that Waits is so good at creating.
At 72 minutes long, this is an album that needs a fair bit of concentration devoted to it. Those with short attention spans can look elsewhere, but Waits fanatics will find plenty to love here. Real Gone is yet another example of why Tom Waits is one of the greatest songwriters alive today.