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Tom Waits amidst junk

REAL GONE (Anti-) • Tom Waits

If the world were a junkyard, Tom Waits would be the crusty junk man digging through the piles of the forgotten, the once loved, the used up and discarded. One day maybe he finds a rusty car part with just the right clang for his beat, on another, a stained love letter, a ripped bible, a lost soul, a scratchy blues record, or his own slippery underbelly.

On Real Gone, his newest release, his signature junkyard sound seems even more intimate and immediate than on other records. The band stays pretty stripped down: most cuts are some variation of the bass, guitar, percussion model. And the result, though perhaps less sweeping in its scope, still achieves the manic range and intensity that is classic Waits: ferocious, guttural, practically spitting out lyrics on the one hand ("You know I feel like a / Preacher waving a gun around / Shake it, shake it, shake it baby") and bone-achingly tender on the other (Lay your head where / My heart used to be /...Remember when you loved me"). That's what we've come to love (and expect) from the junk man.

New noises have been thrown on the heap, too--for example, the turntable scratching of his son, Casey, or the reggae feel of "Sins of the Father"--while older time-honored sounds have gone silent for this one, most notably, his piano. Ultimately, it's his grunting, moaning, shouting, and keening, as well as the loops thereof, that make for the strangest and best of all instruments to color his "Real Gone" world. I'm not sure there's a more physical writer and musician out there.

All the shady characters and bleak stories are here, as well as some images that over the years have practically become characters themselves: the scary barn ("Don't Go Into That Barn" and others) and the circus ("Circus"--on which he employs that same chilling talk voice we might remember from "What's He Building" on Mule Variations, and other classics). And, as always, among the grotesque, the whiskey breath, the mean streets, are some stark and bittersweet truths. As he admits on "How's It Gonna End," "...I want to know / The same thing / Everyone wants to know / How's it gonna end?"

Real Gone is another testament to the production monster that is Waits and Brennan (Kathleen, longtime co-conspirator and spouse). This team seems to dig deeper and get more "gone" on every record they do together. "The sun is up the world is flat / Damn good address for a rat / The smell of blood / The drone of flies / You know what to do if / The baby cries" ("Hoist That Rag"). Turns out, the world is a junkyard, Waits and Brennan are the keepers of our junk, the watchers of our darkness, and it's our underbelly they're showing us.
• Judith Edelman

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