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Going, Going, Gone
Waits: Real Gone
Posted: October 3,
The piano, a staple of Tom Waits' work since the early 1970s, gathers
dust on his new Real Gone. The mercurial troubadour has forsaken
88 keys in favor of syncopated rhythms, turntables and a human beatbox.
Yes, the vibe of hip-hop has finally permeated Tom Waits' unique musical
universe. Waits sacrifices content for atmosphere -- Real Gone is
not so much about what he's saying as how he's saying it. Which is not
to suggest that style entirely trumps substance, but here Waits is
clearly more fascinated by discordant tones playing off of one
another than he is in weaving some intricate and compelling narrative
tapestry. Discriminating noise-art aficionados will no doubt find a lot
to chew on here; fans of Waits' story-songs had best reacquaint
themselves with his extensive back catalogue.
Of course, this being a Tom Waits record, Real Gone does
have an overriding theme: Loss. Whether it's due to war, love, life or a
combination of the three, there's an overcast cloudiness that darkens
the album's musical skies. To his credit, Waits takes time out in the
middle of the album to give a dance lesson ("Metropolitan Glide"),
albeit utilizing a strangulated yelp and clipped yap to convey
particular steps. The frenetic "Shake It" wallows in (and celebrates)
the seedier side of nightlife and includes the choice line "You know I
feel like a preacher waving a gun around." But the good times are spaced
few and far between across this nightmarishly grim landscape.
Though Waits is too savvy to address current geopolitical events
explicitly, there's little doubt the post-9/11 world has manifestly
influenced his work. "Hoist That Rag" dexterously utilizes infectious
Afro-Cuban rhythms in its indictment of imperialism (the occupation of
Iraq) and opportunism (say, a certain large America corporation with
ties to the sitting Vice President profiting from the war on terror).
Bush-bashers will certainly read between the lines of "Sins of My
Father," which rides on Les Claypool's tetchily throbbing bass and
includes such cynical observations as "Carving out a future with a gun
and an axe." The poignant, closing "Day After Tomorrow" is told from the
point of view of a solider stationed overseas, longing for home, and
contains the biting line "They fill us full of lies, everyone buys /
Bout what it means to be a solider."
Elsewhere, the album sports some of Waits' familiar lyrical
touchstones. “Circus” is a spoken-word rogue’s gallery of personalities
who wouldn’t be out of place on Black Riders. “How's It Gonna
End” is a delicious slice of darkness served on chilled dinnerware,
sporting what could be Waits’ artistic credo: “Life is sweet at the edge
of a razor.” And the singer's concern for imperiled or doomed females
continues: “Dead And Lovely” is more detached and noir-ish than either
Bone Machine’s heartbreaking “A Little Rain” or Mule
Variations’ accusatory “Georgia Lee,” lacking the necessary degree
of warmth to connect as deeply as those efforts.
The final third of Real Gone proves the album's undoing. Aside
from being lyrically substandard ("I'm not Able, I'm just Cain"), the
songs are simply dead-horse redundant. We get lovers who've recently
left ("Trampled Rose"); lovers long departed ("Green Grass"); lovers in
the midst of leaving ("Baby Gonna Leave Me"); lovers who've met untimely
ends ("Clang Boom Steam"); and lovers who ran off with your best friend
("Make It Rain" -- which says it best: "You know the story / Here it
comes again"). The thematic repletion wouldn't be so taxing if any of
these tracks possessed exceptional characteristics. Sadly, they're among
the most unmemorable tunes Waits has committed to tape post-Swordfishtrombones.
Real Gone is a noisy, stamping, querulous assault on the senses
that could have certainly benefited from more than a little editing. As
an experiment in the possibilities of vocal gymnastics, it's less
striking than Björk's Medúlla. And
there's simply not enough memorable material on display to merit
frequent revisits. Real Gone will regrettably live up to its
title when people discuss Waits' essential albums. Here's hoping he
brings back the piano (and a little more melody) next time out.
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