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Spotlights [Issue # 12 ]
Tom Waits: Not Gone Yet

By Dean Truitt


Since his unprecedented music career began in 1973 with the release of Closing Time, only one element has remained constant in Tom Waits’ brash artistry: change.

If there exists an artist in recent memory’s collective unconscious who is entitled to rest on his laurels, it would be the California native with a whiskey voice belting out tales of hard-earned wisdom. However, Waits never relies on the tried or the true. Like one of his early heroes, Bob Dylan, Waits seems to take delight in confounding and confusing his audience with the cunning of a sideshow carney. While some may not always delight in his every musical move, no one has ever accused the man of being boring.

From the opening moments of Real Gone, a caustic series of scratches assaults the ear and sounds as though the opening track, “Top of the Hill,” is playing on a broken jukebox. Reading the liner notes, one discovers that the unfamiliar noise emanates from the spinning turntables of Waits’ 19-year-old son, Casey.
Before coming to the inaccurate conclusion that Tom Waits has either lost his tenuous grasp onto sanity (more than usual) or gone the way of Eminem, it should also be noted that one of the surrealistic artist’s sonic mainstays is missing: keyboards. With such a prevalent absence on Waits’ usual canvas, the album somehow sounds more completely removed from contemporary culture than his recent material. The carnival smells of sawdust, hot dogs, and sweat permeate the air as bearded women and macabre clowns wander by the listener’s mind. Most significantly, the removal of keys allows Waits’ primary asset to shine through in all its scarred character: his guttural voice of brutal beauty.

Working closely with his wife, Kathleen Brennan, who also writes and produces with him, Waits achieves an extremely cohesive tone, both in theme and timbre. The collection feels more like a thorny, twisted fairy tale than simply a collection of songs. Real Gone’s poetic storytelling is typically astounding because Waits can always render cynicism with a crooked smile or spirituality with a snarl. With a narrative style nestled somewhere between Edgar Allen Poe and John Steinbeck, Waits glides his abstract pen across tales of decadent splendor. In the haunting “Sins of the Father,” he begs, “Night is falling like a bloody axe / Lies and rumors and the wind at my back / Hand on the wheel gravel on the road / Will the pawn shop sell me back what I sold.”

Real Gone also benefits from an array of musical mavericks: Les Claypool, Harry Cody, Marc Ribot, Larry Taylor, and several others.

As always, the music exudes a bizarre, surreal atmosphere. The sparsely decorated sound is quirky, which perfectly accentuates Waits’ penchant for nonsensical prose and avant-garde imagery. As one song bleeds into the next, the listener can expect to hear a very unusual blend of grinding rhythms, a genial banjo, melancholy guitar, and the singer’s turpentine vocals.

The final track, “Day After Tomorrow,” which also appeared on MoveOn.org’s Future Soundtrack For America compilation CD, is an antiwar masterpiece that reveals stark sincerity and foreshadowing insight. His stirring rendition feels completely anachronistic and will possibly live on for centuries as one of the songsmith’s shining moments.

With the passage of time, Real Gone may not go down as the jewel in Tom Waits’ artistic crown like Swordfishtrombones, Rain Dogs, or Closing Time, but it evinces what has made him a master: traversing unpaved roads and conjuring magic. Contrary to the album’s title, Tom Waits proves he is anything but real gone.


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