om Waits is in the bathroom cleaving holes from his face (one part Lyle Lovett, two parts banshee, one part bourbon, two parts Ron Perlman) in the name of hair removal when he starts making with the freakfreak under his breath, bloozing a drunken beatbox shanty between his teeth. He claps over his son from the DJ booth, breaks all his keyboards and burns his pianos, hatcheting the clunky wooden remains into ember-scented matchsticks for his teeth to clean, wonders about the hunger in his belly, the hunger like a man who hasn’t eaten, and decides that he should eat. Maybe a horse, maybe a sandwich, maybe a horse sandwich. Maybe he’ll just eat the matchsticks.
Well that’s the first song (“Top Of The Hill”) done then; Tom Waits grumbling and growling like only he can, beatboxing now too, just for kicks, while his son breaks a turntable. It’s like the new Bjork record, only drunk out of its mind and fallen in a gutter outside a bordello in Pomona (if there are any bordellos in Pomona), still clutching a guitar and being helped up by a passing stranger clutching another guitar (in this case Marc Ribot). Even by Waits’ standards it’s weird—some have called it horrible but I quite like it. You could, however, use it as ammunition for the accusation that he’s now making records with the sole intention of making Wire readers say “oh, how clever”, but that in itself isn’t necessarily a bad thing. (And is certainly better than music made with the intention of making Mojo readers say “oh, how authentic”.)
Real Gone is a departure for Tom Waits inasmuch as it’s a new set of songs with a new set of ideas governing how they’ve been arranged and produced—no keyboards, no brass, no thumb-pianos, no handbells, no theremin, no harmonica etcetera, just Waits, guitar, some percussion (some of it “vocal percussion”) and Les Claypool, Ribot and a handful of other collaborators including Waits’ wife and co-writer/producer Kathleen Brennan. But it’s also not a departure for Waits inasmuch as it’s another album of febrile, canine blues/country wrought by a madman who is actually saner than anyone who would call him ‘mad’ in the first place.
I’ve always liked the idea of Tom Waits, but the sheer wealth of material and fervour of fans always put me off investigating his work until I picked up the frankly magnificent Rain Dogs a few months ago. Since then I’ve been dipping my toe in the waters of his peculiar imagination, but I’m still very much a novice. As such Real Gone seems like a conscious move away slightly from the Mojo-friendly idiosyncratic country-blues authenticism of Mule Variations (great in places, dull in places) from my vantage point, towards more obtuse but interesting and satisfactory territory. I’ve come across more than one mention of Waits’ arrangements being bizarre, especially on this record, but they’re not really—they simply seem bizarre because everyone else is so boring. This is a world where people think Wilco are avant-garde because they did a drone, remember.
Anyway, a diehard Waits fan (they’re very eager to talk to you when you’re playing Waits in your office) told me that “Hoist That Rag” might be the best song he’s recorded, and it certainly is good (it reminds me of an angular pop hit from earlier this year in the guitar hook and drums, but I can’t quite place it for the life of me). And on “Trampled Rose” Waits’ strained voice is redolent of Cobain at his most yowled on Unplugged, only this time it’s theatrical rather than suicidal (where the theatre is a strange, surreal place of greasepaint and daemons and drugged cups of tea in the green room), and “Baby Gonna Leave Me” is gloriously messy and outside of its own head. “Sins Of The Father” is a ten-minute minimal country-blues dirge, and I don’t use ‘dirge’ in the pejorative sense. I can’t quite fathom the lyric, but I get the idea it has something to do with America’s current political situation. Likewise the album’s closer, the hushed and beautiful “Day After Tomorrow”, would seem to be unfavourably disposed towards the incumbent president, but this is an impression garnered through insinuation (or perhaps inference) rather than direct extrapolation.
So Tom Waits’ 21st album (as far as I can ascertain) will, I imagine, tickle your fancy as much as some of his best work over the last 30 years if you’ve already bitten deeply into his oeuvre, and if you haven’t it will probably act as a good example of his more idiosyncratically far-out moments (but not that far-out). Or you could sod all that “pleasing to fans and non-fans alike” bullshit, shove it up your arse, and enjoy the record for what it is, which is a semi-bizarre and semi-wonderful example of twisted, melted country-blues-psyche-pop oddballness. Your choice.