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Going, Going, Gone


Tom Waits: Real Gone

Anti-, 2004

Rating: 3.5



Posted: October 3, 2004

By Laurence Station

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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 Ratings Key:
 5.0: A classic
 4.0-4.9: Stellar work
 3.0-3.9: Worthwhile effort
 2.0-2.9: Nothing special
 1.1-1.9: Pretty bad
 0.0-1.0: Total disaster

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