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Tom Waits Real Gone Review

Album. Released 2004.  

BBC Review

It's incredible that someone who, these days, is undoubtedly more superannuated than...

Chris Jones 2002

Tom Waits' last two (simultaneously released) albums contained specifically written pieces for the theatre and found him in a distinctly Brechtian mode. While awesome, one still longed for a return to the classic days of Rain Dogs etc. Thus when it was announced that Real Gone featured the old touring band and a collection of new stand-alone songs excitement ran high. But it seems that this is actually quite a departure...What marks Real Gone as a change of direction for Tom are two things: One is his decision to excise any use of piano or keyboards from the recording process. The second is the use of his own voice. Initial stripped-back home-recordings resulted in Tom using his patent growl as the rhythm track, albeit augmented by drummer Brain Mantia (of Primus). Overdriven and primal, these lolloping grunts and wheezes give the whole album a weirdly steam-driven aesthetic, mirrored in lyrics that highlight the relentless grind of life on the underbelly.

Mainly recorded in single takes, the core ensemble of Mantia, Larry Taylor (bass) and Marc Ribot (guitar) swing wild and loose, combining dirty notes with Waits' rasped and shouted lyrics. Additional turntablism by Waits' son Casey adds to the strangely mechanical vibe. Yet it's only the repetitious vibe of men straining under post-industrialism: pile-driven into transgression and misery, but always retaining a gallows humour.

Stories of lost love, bitter regret and human life laid waste seem to be the main currency, but Waits and wife Kathleen Brennan's wordplay always narrowly avoids self-parody by use of fantastically impressionistic imagery and wry couplets. Whether it's the resigned calypso shuffle of ''Hoist That Rag'', the processional blues of ''Make It Rain'' ( which contains the priceless line 'I'm not Able, I'm just Cain') or the jazzy shuffle of ''Dead And Lovely'' (a murder ballad sketched in James Ellroy noir shades), Waits comes on, as always, like some socially aware Captain Beefheart, channelling every drunken hobo and down at heel loser that got swept under society's carpet.

It's incredible that someone who, these days, is undoubtedly more superannuated than itinerant can still sound this convincing. Only on the hilarious ''Don't Go Into The Barn'' does Tom's brand of louche gothic tip into Nick Cave/Night Of The Hunter southern surrealism territory, and you become concerned that this is grim-by-numbers. But in the company of 14 other instant Waits classics this is a mere niggle. The closing track, ''The Day After Tomorrow'', finally arrives to remind you what a consummate songwriter he is, with its war-weary soldier's letter home a stark reminder of the current world state. Already Real Gone looks like being one of Tom's best...

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