Review Summary: Tom Waits is mad as hell, and he's not going to take it anymore.
If any singer deserves the title “acquired taste,” it’s Tom Waits. He started out nearly forty years ago with his James Taylor-meets-Jack Daniels debut Closing Time, and he’s been getting progressively more eccentric ever since. His musical backing has shifted from jazzy piano to scrap metal percussion and mangled guitars, and his vocals have gone from rough to, well, rougher.
Amongst Waits fans, the debate over his best album comes up often. People who would rather listen to Billy Joel than Primus generally agree that 1976’s Small Change is the best, whereas fans of his more abrasive work are usually split between 1985’s Rain Dogs and 1992’s Grammy-winning Bone Machine, with a few stray votes for the bluesy Mule Variations sneaking in.
Notably absent from these debates is his most recent studio album, Real Gone. For this album, Waits abandoned the piano. Ugly, distorted guitars and Waits’ own beat-boxing loops (more like structured grunting, but what the hell) form the majority of the musical backing, while his vocals are as confrontational as they’ve ever been. Even the ballads, top-notch as they are, are nowhere near as inviting as previous albums’. Waits fans are generally accepting of abrasive music, so it’s surprising to see Real Gone receiving such little acclaim.
While I rank it in the upper tier of Waits’ albums, I’ll admit that it’s not the most consistent. Opener “Top of the Hill” is just plain irritating, and “Metropolitan Glide” can never get out of its own way, avoiding melody at all cost. Furthermore, “Sins of My Father” could have been cut in half and it would still be a drag to sit through. However, it should be noted that these songs, flawed as they are, sound much better within the context of the album. If any Waits album has a unified sound, it’s Real Gone.
Perhaps the best example of that “sound” is “Baby Gonna Leave Me.” Starting off with a frantic beat-boxing loop that sounds like it was recorded about two inches from your ear, the song winds its way through a standard blues chord progression. Waits’ lyrics play around with sad-sack blues clichés, including the hilarious “If I was a tree, I’d be a cut-down tree / And if I was a bed, I’d be an unmade bed."
Waits has always been known as a brilliant lyricist, and Real Gone continues that tradition. “Hoist That Rag” could be about any number of things, but whatever it’s about, it’s intriguing. “Make It Rain” somehow manages to make an Abel/able pun sound brilliant, and “Dead and Lovely” features the line “He’s not the kind of wheel you fall asleep at,” one of the more ominous compliments I’ve heard in a while.
However, the rest of the album pales in comparison to “Don’t Go Into That Barn,” an absolute monster of a song. Waits piles on the threatening details: a scream coming from the woods, an old black tree, a spooky old barn, and a wrecked slave ship. The woozy, lumbering stomp of a musical backing only enhances the lyrics’ menacing tone, making the song downright scary.
It’s a testament to Tom Waits’ level of talent and consistency that an album as strong as Real Gone is criminally ignored. To be fair, it’s not as groundbreaking as Rain Dogs, as cathartic as Bone Machine, or as amusing as Small Change. However, its foreboding mood and the strength of songs like “Hoist That Rag” and “Don’t Go Into That Barn” places it alongside those classic albums. Fans of ballads and songs like “The Piano Has Been Drinking” may not agree, but I doubt Tom Waits gives a damn.