By Rob van Alstyne
By Zach McCormick
By Emily Eveland
By Jack Spencer
By Michael Madden
By Reed Fischer
By Emily Weiss
By Emily Weiss
With poetic inventiveness that often seems effortless and a proclivity for repetition that often seems slovenly, Tom Waits has created and solidified his very own world. It's an alternate America where luckless romantics and quietly deranged suburban Joes meet up with one-legged, knife-packing Filipino midgets on the trash-littered grounds of an abandoned amusement park, while a comely Midwestern sweetheart plays Louis Armstrong's "Georgia Bo Bo" on an out-of-tune calliope. It's a wonderful place, but one that over the years has grown about as dilapidated as that amusement park.
On one hand, Waits is a restless experimentalist who follows his gut wherever it leads him. On the other hand, he's frustratingly comfortable recycling from his old kit bag of tricks. On several of his albums, a phrase or colorful detail appears, in more or less the same form, in two different songs. During Real Gone's loopy jam "Top of the Hill," Waits watches as "the moon rises over Dog Street." Later, on the tired "Circus," he hears a band play a song called..."Moon Over Dog Street."
Don't get me wrong: I hope to hear Waits's raw blues and heart-tugging ballads forever. I'm just bored with his stock references and lyrical devices. Perhaps you know them: circuses, East Asian "exotica," mid-sized Midwestern cities, barns, dogs, people with missing body parts, comically named tertiary characters that seem to have stepped out of Howlin' Wolf's "Wang Dang Doodle" or a long-defunct comic strip (on Real Gone we meet Skinny Bones Jones, Piggy Knowles, Knocky Parker, Bowlegged Sal, Shane and Bum Mahoney, Saginaw Calinda, and Horse Face Ethel, among others).
Real Gone is a modest departure from his past work in that it mostly eschews keyboards and emphasizes the human beatboxing and turntablism dabbled in on 1999's great Mule Variations. But Waits best describes the album when on the urgent "Make It Rain" he belts out, "You know the story, here it comes again."
Despite the above complaints and the fact that Real Gone is about 25 minutes too long, Waits and his wife and collaborator Kathleen Brennan mostly tell the story again in a manner befitting mad geniuses. (Waits's 19-year-old son Casey joins on turntables and just-the-basics drums to form a sort of bohemian family band.) Waits's Dylan-esque antiwar tune "Day After Tomorrow" closes the album beautifully, and his primal howl is in top form on "Metropolitan Glide" (fave line: "You kill me with your machine-gun laugh") and "Baby Gonna Leave Me" (fave line: "And if I was a tree/I'd be a cut-down tree/And if I was a bed/I'd be an unmade bed.") By my scorecard, though, guitarist and longtime Waits sideman Marc Ribot is the star of the show. Like Waits, Ribot is a man of exceptional taste who doesn't hide his varied influences yet always sounds distinctive. On the gloriously noisy "Shake It," he fiercely conjures blues great Otis Rush, while on "Hoist That Rag," he evokes the piercing style of Cuban tres player Arsenio Rodriguez. On his "Hoist That Rag" solo, Ribot pursues a simple Latin figure until it seems to wave a white flag, after which he unleashes a flurry of grit-toned jazz-blues-rock inspiration, and then closes with thick, slashing chords. It's more than enough to make me want to dance with Horse Face Ethel.