12 October 2004

Real Gone by Tom Waits

Definitely part of the original idea was to do something somewhere between surreal and rural. We call it surrural. That's what these songs are -- surrural. There's an element of something old about them, and yet it's kind of disorienting, because it's not an old record by an old guy.

--Tom Waits, 1999
Since Jonathan Strahan has been writing about R.E.M.'s rather bland new album, I thought I would say a few words here about Real Gone, the new album from Tom Waits.

If you have heard Waits previously and found his voice -- which sounds like Bob Dylan chewing on a carburetor -- off-putting, then you will not like this album, because most of the songs here are noisy and raw. Waits growls and screams and grunts and moans relentlessly through the first five tracks, letting up only for a moment with How's It Gonna End. This is industrial Waits -- surruralist prayers hung on the wall of a munitions factory, their rhythms collated in a dadabase of grunge.

To someone who doesn't appreciate Waits, it's impossible to explain his appeal. Yes, we can praise his lyrics, and even his melodies (when he chooses to have them). But how to explain the thrill his voice conveys, how to explain that "Hoist That Rag" moved me both to laughter and tears? Music goes to the limbic system, it bypasses reason, it spits on our epistemologies.

So let me just say here that, once again, the lyrics Waits has come up with (in collaboration with his wife, Kathleen Brennan), are phenomenal and surprising -- the lines "Smoke is blacking out the sun/ At night I pray and clean my gun" from the aforementioned "Hoist That Rag" are, perhaps to me alone, simultaneously hilarious and haunting.

Guns and God appear as often on this album as at a Republican Convention. "You know I feel like a/ Preacher waving a gun around", "He had a bullet-proof smile", "God took the stars and he tossed 'em", etc. Death appears a lot, too, especially in the song "Dead and Lovely", which is a kind of gothic torch song, perfect for a David Lynch movie, with the chorus: "But now she's dead/ She's so dead forever/ Dead and lovely now."

"Circus" is a spoken-word piece, similar to "What's He Building?" from Mule Variations. It's a familiar enough track, harking back to the proto-Beat songs of the '70s albums.

What's new on this album, though (aside from the prevalence of beat-boxing gospel songs with guns), is "Day After Tomorrow", a song that seems to be speaking to current events (an impression aided by the song's appearance on Future Soundtrack for America, a grab-bag of songs created as a fundraiser for anti-Bush forces [it also includes one of the better songs from the new R.E.M. album]). The song has a certain affinity to "A Soldier's Things", but it's more frightened and hopeful than nostalgic, being a dramatic monologue from a soldier waiting to come home:
They fill us full of lies everyone buys
'Bout what it means to
Be a soldier. I still don't
Know how I'm supposed to feel 'bout
All the blood that's been spilled.

Will God on this throne
Get me back home
On the day after tomorrow?

You can't deny the other side
Don't want to die anymore
Than we do. What I'm
Trying to say is: Don't they pray
To the same God that we do?

And tell me how does God
Choose, whose prayers does he
Refuse? Who turns the wheel
Who rolls the dice
On the day after tomorrow?
A reviewer somewhere made an astute point about this song: While we may see it as a comment on the current situation in Iraq, there is nothing in the song to locate it in one particular war or another, and so Waits's real accomplishment is to have written a song that feels like it could be the thoughts of any confused and frightened soldier of the past fifty years at least. Laid out naked and on their own, the lyrics seem touching, painful, and naive -- their job is not so much to be penetrating philosophy as to portray a character: a kid lost at war.

Musically, "Day After Tomorrow" is one of the simplest songs on the album, one of the quietest, the sound of whispers in the night. After so many relentless and coruscating songs, "Day After Tomorrow" is a devastating finale. (It's not the final song, though, as Waits adds an amusing, minute-long coda of mouth-noise to remind us of where we have been.)

It is not surprising to me that Waits's music has made cameo appearances in books by Neil Gaiman and M. John Harrison (among others), because there is something to the oddity of his vision, his insistent strangeness, that matches those writers' emotional landscapes, different as they are. In another life, Waits would have been a great fantasy writer.

Some links:
Tom Waits's record company's site, which includes some downloads

Official Tom Waits website (not updated recently)

Tom Waits for No Man: A Tom Waits News Blog

The Eyeball Kid, another news blog

Rain Dogs Mailing List

Tom Waits Fan site

various reviews of Real Gone

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