In its tattered luminescence, the world of a Tom Waits song is all back alleys and carnival trash. Every exchange seethes with corruption, every joke is edged with pain, and something is usually burning. One of the minor wonders of his career is that Waits has continued to draw listeners back to his world of endless margins, a world almost as terrifying as the one we actually inhabit. Still another is that at the age of 55 he has made what is perhaps his most innovative and furious album.
Much of the boldness of Real Gone lies in its raw, stripped-down arrangements. There is no harmonium, calliope or marimba touching up these songs, and for the first time in Waits’ career, there’s not even a note from the piano. Instead, he employs a core of guitarists including Marc Ribot and Larry Taylor, plus Les Claypool on bass.
With the stage sparsely set, Waits centers much of the album around the different textures of his own voice, with a particular focus on its percussive capacities. The style of these “mouth rhythms,” as Waits calls them, is more vocalized than beat-boxing, and also more sustained than his occasional explorations on Mule Variations (1999). These are not loops but track-length recordings that the songs have been built around, giving them a stormy, refracted feel, with lyrics rising up from a mire of churning syllables and half-formed yelps, as if Waits is imagining a difficult re-birthing of language itself.
The album opens with a rollicking squawk on “Top Of The Hill”, as one vocal track approximates the rattle of a cartoonishly sinister car engine while the other drifts in and out of surreal rhyme-chants. Somehow turntables and what sounds like a heavily distorted kazoo are added in mid-song. The whole thing works to stunning effect. This is the most visceral Waits album since 1992’s Bone Machine, but it also has a varied, infectious set of grooves, with a bluesy, blustering mambo running through “Shake It” and Afro-Cuban textures wrapping themselves around the thunderous chorus of “Hoist That Rag”.
Lyrically, Real Gone is particularly noteworthy for a handful of songs (“Sins Of My Father”, “Make It Rain” and “Day After Tomorrow”) that are more directly political than any Waits has previously written. These tracks effectively shade the surrounding material with a more urgent sense of the catastrophic present.