”The earth died screaming, while I lay dreaming. Dreaming of you”
Those are the lyrics for the chorus of the first song, and highlight track, on Bone Machine. His signature percussion tells us immediately that this is a Tom Waits record, and then everybody’s favourite singing ash tray comes in with his vocals, confirming it beyond doubt. A love song? Maybe, but certainly not an ordinary one. But this is Tom Waits, and Tom Waits is anything but ordinary. His voice is exceptionally raspy, his music exceptionally different, and ultimately people will probably think he is either exceptionally good or exceptionally bad. Average would never describe him.
Compared to some of his best albums, Swordfishtrombones and Raindogs, the album is somewhat similar, although a lot darker and less accessible, as many of the songs deal with murder and death. The songs vary wildly from sorrowful ballads (”Who Are You”, and ”A Little Rain Never Hurt No One”) to furious rocking tracks (”Goin’ Out West”), and slow bluesy songs (”Jesus Gonna Be Here”). One thing that is
consistent, however, is the quality of these songs. Some will appeal more than others (A lot of his ballads aren’t as ‘intimidating’ as the rest of his music, and could be enjoyed by people who normally wouldn’t like his music), but there aren’t really any tracks that you could call weak on Bone Machine. The best song on here for people who might be put off by the dark atmosphere and raspy vocals is probably "Whistle Down the Wind”, arguably the best ballad on the album.
His music is very disorganized. "Jesus Gonna Be Here", another highlight, seems like a standard twelve bar blues, but skips a bar here and there, which some of the other songs do as well. Certain licks and sounds sometimes seem to be placed randomly throughout the songs, adding to the inaccessibility of the album. Because, like most Tom Waits albums, this is inaccessible at first, due to his voice among other things, and it takes a few listens before you can appreciate the music.
For me, the most important thing in Tom Waits’ music is the atmosphere. It’s often quite disturbing and eerie, especially when combined with the lyrics. This is perhaps even more true for his spoken-word songs, though there is only one on this album (”The Ocean Doesn’t Want Me Anymore”), a particularly unsettling song. ”A Murder In The Red Barn” is another good example. It is not a spoken-word song, but certainly one of the most frightening songs on the album. You can hear the floorboards creaking, as Tom Waits rasps: ” ‘Cause there’s nothin’ strange / About an axe with bloodstains in the barn / There’s always some killin’ / You got to do around the farm / A murder in the red barn / Murder in the red barn”
The best song on the album is probably ”Dirt In The Ground”, a song about the inevitable fact that we are all going to die: ”Ask a king or a beggar / And the answer they’ll give/ Is we’re all gonna be / Yea yea / We’re all gonna be just / Dirt in the ground”
His vocals are somewhat high-pitched, at least compared to his usual singing, and admittedly, they annoyed me at first. After countless listens, I find this to be an incredibly moving, heartfelt song, definitely one of his best, and it pretty much sums up what the album is about. Another strong contender is album closer ”That Feel”, another ballad, featuring Keith Richards
on back up vocals. It is a comforting end to the harrowing nightmare that is Bone Machine, and all in all a beautiful song.
Bone Machine is dark, sad, furious, frightening and beautiful; a masterpiece of experimental rock. It may not be his magnum opus (I feel any aspiring music critic needs to use that term at one point or another), an accolade that probably goes to Rain Dogs, but it certainly would have been for most artists. It remains one of his darkest and most interesting albums.