With each successive album, Tom Waits has become harder to pin down. He is unorthodox and approaches things differently; he is strange, and as a result of that his music is strange, different and unorthodox. His last two (simultaneously released) albums ( Alice and Blood Money ) contained pieces specifically written for the theatre and found him in a distinctly theatrical (Brechtian) mode. Real Gone is Waits's most vital album in twelve years as he moves away from the feel of the last two.
What marks Real Gone as a change of direction for Waits are two things he does or does not do. Firstly, he is not using any piano or keyboards, which is strange as in the last thirty years whatever he did, whatever he sang about, he always had a piano to accompany him. This time it was used as a table to put drinks or coats on. The second is the use of his vocals. For this album he recorded hours and hours of vocal sounds and many of them were recorded in his bathroom and were used as rhythm loops.
Real Gone is so distorted and frayed but it is actually the instrumentation that grabs you at the outset. Each track is smooth, simple and outstanding. Backed up by Marc Ribot on guitar, drummer Brain Mantia (Primus), Larry Taylor on bass and his son Casey on turntables, Waits is delivering an unusual album. I guess fans have long waited to see Marc Ribot playing again on more than a track or two (compared to Mule Variations ). His guitar playing throughout this record is incendiary, frantic and absolutely brilliant, starting from lunatic flamenco to battered blues that makes you think why Waits ever recorded an album without him.
Anyway, what's important about Waits are the stories he tells and the characters he makes to tell those stories. He has always combined a lyrical focus on desperate, lowlife characters with a persona that seemed to personify the same lifestyle, which he sings about in a raspy voice. "Top of the Hill" is a funky track with nonsensical lyrics backed by vocal sound samples and turntable scratches, as well as Ribot's simple but funky riff. This is followed by brutal "Hoist That Rag," with its intricate rhythms and Cuban-influenced Ribot soloings. "Metropolitan Glide" is a funky, hip-hop/R&B instructional dance track (with instructions how to dance: "Now show your teeth, bray like a calf/Then kill me with your machine gun laugh"). "Dead and Lovely" and "Green Grass" are beautiful bluesy balads that perfectly show the emotional content of his gravelly voice. The album closes with an antiwar anthem "Day After Tomorrow" that is also featured on MoveOn.org's "Future Soundtrack for America," which is unusual for him as he never grappled with politics.
Wait's career spans over thirty years with over twenty albums behind him. This is strange and beautiful work and it seems that it is one of the most intricate albums he has ever done, but the bottom line is that he has assembled a great band. The fact that he is trying to push his own sound is a victory in itself and it gets better with every new listen. Real Gone is simply one of the great classic Tom Waits albums.
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Tracks: 1. Top Of The Hill; 2. Hoist That Rag; 3. Sins Of My Father; 4. Shake It; 5. Don't Go Into That Barn; 6. How's It Gonna End; 7. Metropolitan Glide; 8. Dead And Lovely; 9. Circus; 10. Trampled Rose; 11. Green Grass; 12. Baby Gonna Leave Me; 13. Clang Boom Steam; 14. Make It Rain; 15. Day After Tomorrow.