Still the lanky storyteller treading his own back-alley paths, Tom Waits is as prolific, influential and innovative as any artist you’ll find on the contemporary music scene. Over the last thirty years, Waits has amassed a hefty body of work: more than twenty albums, as well as numerous musical collaborations, film roles and musical theater projects. By weaving together distorted guitars, tear-tattooed girls, sepia-hued barrooms, tinkling concertinas, fumbling hangmen, battered drums and tattered dreams, Waits has created an expansive aural landscape, over which he reigns as Boss Universal.
The follow up to 2002’s Alice and Blood Money, Real Gone is a record gracefully poised between the sublime and the absurd: Cacophonous tracks are set against steady ballads; impressionistic lyrics are nestled among syncopated phrases, growls and cackles. Ambitious and entertaining, Real Gone showcases Waits as the vehicle carrying — and the rhythmic motor propelling — his characters into the world. And, there’s an instructional dance number.
Real Gone arrives with some notable cast members. Waits’s wife and long-time partner Kathleen Brennan splits writing/producing duties with her husband, and son Casey appears on drums and turntables. The always-solid Marc Ribot returns with his eclectic guitar work, and proto hillbilly-chic Les Claypool adds his skilled bass playing. The album also boasts some notable stylistic choices: Waits loses his trusty piano on Real Gone and introduces his own fractured style of human beatboxing (recorded by cassette in his bathroom). This percussive experiment weaves unexpectedly well into the apocalyptic tin-can ranting style Waits pioneered in the ’90s with Bone Machine and Mule Variations.
And as with all experiments, it’s likely the exact formula will flesh out over time. In this case, it’s only a matter of tracks: Opener “Top of the Hill” grows to be braying and tedious, but the formula is perfected with the aforementioned schizo-“dance” number, “Metropolitan Glide,” and “Shake It,” which presents Waits as jail-bent-codger barking out his catcalls over a bluesy, barbed riff (“Strip Poker Motel/ Got a small blue tail/ Hot ice, cold cash/ I never been no good at/ Staying out of jail”). Another gem is “Don’t Go into the Barn,” where Waits spins a cryptic tale of toil over his own chain-gang grunt rhythm. But Real Gone‘s highlight just may come when Claypool and Casey join the infernal fun of “Hoist that Rag,” a hellishly-tasty Latin number with distorted chorus and Ribot’s delicious, reverb-drenched guitar.
Along with the beatbox tracks, Real Gone contains straightforward (or at least more traditionally-Waitsian) numbers. “Day after Tomorrow” is the album’s politically-tinged tearjerker (“I am not fighting for justice/ I am not fighting for freedom/ I am fighting for my life”), and “Sins Of My Father” is carried by bongo drums while Waits croaks out one his salt-of-the-earth tales: “Kissed my sweetheart by the chinaball tree / Everything I done is between God and me/ Only he will judge how my time was spent”. As with most of Waits’s recordings, it’s ultimately his inimitable voice that characterizes the tracks. This holds true for Real Gone, as well; Waits’s voice ratchets from hobo-crooner to carnival-caller to hellfire preacher.
Though he unpredictably introduces beatbox percussion into his blend of balladry, Real Gone doesn’t sound hackneyed, but rather ingenious. And furthermore, it’s this unpredictability that exhibits a key element in the artist’s longevity and relevance: his historic commitment to idiosyncratic independence.