Tom Waits has snuck back into the spotlight over the past year. He released the excellent Bad as Me late last year, and now he’s making the rounds on the Late Night circuit. And while these performances have (or should have) reminded us how great his most recent work is, it’s also worth noting that’s it’s been 20 years since we got Waits’s best album.
Now, I know what you’re thinking: it’s been way more than 20 years since Rain Dogs came out in 1985. And yup, Rain Dogs is classic, and along with Swordfishtrombones a major game changer for Waits. But 1992’s Bone Machine is Waits most fully realized statement, the kind of record that succeeds not because of its eccentricities but in some ways in spite of them. Or rather, it’s strange record, but the strangeness is in the background clanging away, not a patina over every note of the record.
The Quaranting the Past series has mentioned more than once (and perhaps too much) the idea of post-Nevermind rock music. Bone Machine came out almost exactly a year after Nevermind did, and its greatest virtue is that it doesn’t sound like it did at all. It’s not really pinned in by time, by the sea change in commercial rock music that came with the start of the ’90s. In fact, Waits is in a lot of ways a necessary and hugely effective antidote to the Cobains of the musical world. Which isn’t to say Cobain wasn’t important and a kind of musical genius and a culture icon and a troubled soul and so on and so forth. That’s still all true and Nirvana is still important. But in the face of Waits’s growling on Bone Machine, Cobain sounds downright whiny. While Cobain groans over how hard it is to live, Tom Waits spends his album reminding us that we’re all going to die. These may seem like two sides of the same coin, but the distinction between the two shows that Waits (then 43) had a different, more world-weary perspective to bring to the table.
Bone Machine, from the title on down, does seem obsessed with the inevitability of the end. It opens with the brilliant “Earth Died Screaming,” an album full of death and decay — there are devils and “crows as big as airplanes” and Kane and Abel — and meanwhile Waits howls about how “the earth died screaming, while I lay dreaming, dreaming of you.” There’s this slight hint of heartbreak out on the far corners of the song, even as a much more pressing fate looms. The next song, “Dirt in the Ground,” shakes off the frustration for broken-down acceptance. As if in response to “Earth Died Screaming,” he starts here with “What does it matter if we dream of love or we dream of lies?” since that insistent death is coming.
It all seems pretty dire and apocalyptic, and it also makes for a curious start to the record. What’s worth remembering is that there had been a long break between albums for Waits before Bone Machine. Franks Wild Years had come out in 1987, and Waits had done the soundtrack for Jim Jarmusch’s Night on Earth earlier in 1992, but that’s it between Rain Dogs and Bone Machine. And though Franks Wild Years is considered a proper album, it’s also a collection derived from tunes written by Waits and his wife Kathleen Brennan for a play of the same name. So as far as pure new studio material goes, Bone Machine is a follow-up to Rain Dogs. And the bone-rattle and rasp of “Earth Died Screaming” suggests that not much had changed for Waits off the stage in the seven years between those records.
Which is what makes “Dirt in the Ground” so important. If Bone Machine is obsessed with death, it’s also searching for survival before that death comes. And while Waits wails and keens his gravelly way through different escape routes, the music itself finds salvation in tradition. Rain Dogs was about subverting tradition, twisting old sounds into something new and unrecognizable, but Bone Machine is about stripping then down to the, well, bone. “Dirt in the Ground” is blue-light torch-singer stuff, Waits hitting that high-register all the way through. Later, you get the tarpaper-shack gospel of “Jesus Gonna Be Here,” a song built on little more than stomp, a few bass notes, and a handful of slide-guitar notes. “Goin’ Out West” hearkens back to Little Richard or Jerry Lee Lewis — that kind of rollicking rock ‘n roll, but only if you kicked it around a bit, chipped the enamel off the piano keys and ran the guitars through some strangely muted distortion.
There are even moments here that touch on Waits’s own musical history. The jangling guitars and sweet melody of “Who Are You” remind us, the same way “Hang Down Your Head” did on Rain Dogs, that Waits can be a pop genius when he wants to be. The faint pedal steel on “A Little Rain” doesn’t sound like Waits’s first record, Closing Time, so much as it reminds us of its dusty singer-songwriter vibe, and “Whistle Down the Wind” is a slightly thornier take on Waits’s penchant for piano balladry. In these moments, Waits isn’t taking stock so much as he’s reimagining and refining the past, taking everything — both his musical foundations and his eccentricities and refining them. In that way, we see Bone Machine offering one possible salvation in the face of the end: reinventing the path that got us there. Though this may be harder to do in the internet age, sometimes moving on and acceptance isn’t about forgetting the past as it is about salvaging parts of it and making them what they couldn’t be before.
All this dipping back into the bag of tricks culminates in two fascinating late album tracks. “I Don’t Want to Grow Up” has Waits growling and the guitar in the background is plenty distorted, but the mix here is much cleaner and lighter than any song before. As Waits turns his back on the gravity of the rest of the record, looking at the time before regret, at the time where you know you’ll one day live long enough to have that regret, as he watches his parents fight and claims “I’d rather stay here in my room, nothing out there but sad and gloom.” It’s exactly the kind of isolated, cynical sentiment you’d hear from Nirvana, but there’s some distance and perspective here, some knowledge that not wanting to grow up is both part of the freedom of youth and a feeling that will ultimately disappoint.
And so, Waits shows, yes we will grow up and yes death will come, but in the end Bone Machine isn’t about giving up but rather about pushing forward. Who better to help Waits nail that sentiment on closer “That Feel” than Keith Richards. His mere presence on the song is evidence enough of surviving the rutted-out road of hard living, but Richards also co-wrote the song, and the guitars bring his deep blues influence front and center — so we get that one final reminder of the importance of tradition — and Waits lets us know “you can pawn your watch and chain but not that feel.” The feeling, which is “harder to get rid of than tattoos,” is what the album is about. Waits may have started the album singing about “the Earth” and how it “died screaming,” but “That Feel” is more about earth itself, about the physical and how it’s all going to break down. Here he says he’ll “cross my wooden legs and swear on my glass eye” that it’s all about a feeling. That feeling comes across all over Bone Machine, an album that sounds much wiser and more honest about darkness and death than any of those Northwest whippersnappers could manage in 1992, and that is what makes it sound so much more hopeful. Because where those rockers were going, Waits has already been, and he survived to tell the tale.