Not Gone Yet
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 memorys 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
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 artists 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 listeners 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 Gones 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 singers turpentine vocals.
The final track, Day After Tomorrow, which also appeared on MoveOn.orgs
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 songsmiths 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 albums title, Tom Waits
proves he is anything but real gone.