On Dec. 7, Tom Waits will turn 55 years old. Despite his age, he is cooler than most people our age. He is a veritable dictionary of one-liners and half-truths. He’s made a career out of a gravel voice and a trashcan wit that never goes out of style. And he has just released his 19th album, “Real Gone.”Unlike most musicians, who release steadily worse albums as they age (look at the Rolling Stones, Elvis Costello, and Bob Dylan), Waits never seems to fail. His last two releases, “Alice” and “Blood Money,” contained two different sides of Waits. “Alice” relived his ’70s jazz-folk while giving new structures to songs. “Blood Money” saw Waits barking bleak lyrics of over marimba-led jungle beats.
With “Real Gone” we see Waits taking new structures to old styles of songs; just look at the crashing shift in “Shake it Baby.” And he increases his interest in percussion rather than melody. This is the first album by Waits where piano is nowhere to be found; instead shakers, vocal percussion, and drums provide the backbone of the song.
Really, you need this album. One of my favorite songs of the year has to be “Hoist That Rag.” Lyrics like “God used me as his hammer boys / to beat his weary drum today” and “the sun is up, the world is flat / damn good address for a rat” seem to fall over the intoxicating muted lead guitar and trashcan rhythm. With this song I picture old Waits in the middle of a field doing his own distorted rain dance.
Another crown jewel of this record would have to be the ten minute song “Sins of the Father”, but the main reason that this album is one of the best of the year comes from the closer: “Day After Tomorrow.” The vocal percussion is nowhere to be found and we are left with a heartbreaking tale of a soldier who wishes he were back home in “Rockford town / up by the Wisconsin border.” The soldier doesn’t see the reason to fight the war he is in because “they fill us full of lies, everyone buys / ’bout what it means to / be a soldier.”
The soldier also raises the good point: “you can’t deny, the other side / don’t want to die anymore / then we do, what I’m trying to say is don’t they pray / to the same God that we do?” But for some reason (the government maybe?) he worries that he won’t be home soon, saying “We’re just gravel on the road / and only the lucky ones come / home, on the day after tomorrow.