- The Washington Times - Monday, November 1, 2004

Tom Waits

Real Gone

Anti- Records

Tom Waits, the phlegmy-voiced piano crooner, takes a sharp left turn on his latest release, most notably by dropping the piano completely.

The soundscape of “Real Gone” is a dankly enclosed space of pots-and-pans percussion, primal rhythms and voodoo funk. Its oddball stories of money-grubbers, circus freaks and rural mischief are trimmed with distorted yelps and human beatbox convulsions. “The night’s too quiet/Stretched out alone/I need the whip of thunder/And the wind’s dark moan,” Mr. Waits unloads on the B.B. King-in-a-padded-cell blues of “Make it Rain.”

What he needs, he gives.

There’s a pretty good chance the Waits-uninitiated listener — he’s been around since the early ‘70s but is becoming an ever-better-kept secret — will react to “Gone” with a “What is this?” grimace.

As the album begins with the one-chord funk cycle “Top of the Hill,” Mr. Waits voices instructions to someone in the control room, calling for more filtering on his voice. With the twiddle of a knob, an already ravaged instrument turns into Billy Bob Thornton in “Sling Blade.” On the voodoo cha-cha of “Hoist that Rag” and the leather-crack of “Shake It,” he becomes a man possessed, emitting menacing, man-without-meds noises.

Produced and written by Mr. Waits with wife Kathleen Brennan, “Gone,” indeed, seems like a deliberate subversion of tunefulness; it’s a work of deconstruction. Marc Ribot’s guitar is gnarled and immediate. Bassist Les Claypool and percussionist Brain (both formerly of Primus) join Mr. Waits’ son, Casey Waits, a drummer/percussionist, to form what sounds like a loud drum line of shopping-cart street performers.

But there is form within the clatter. “Dead and Lovely” and “Trampled Rose” have slow, sinuous melodies, and each comes at opportune moments — where it seems as though the album gets away from itself.

The discordant timbre of “Gone” might be a reflection of the elder Waits’ displeasure with the current administration. The 10-minute-plus, Dylan-esque ramble “Sins of My Father” contains the observation that “Everybody knows that the game was rigged/Justice wears suspenders and a powdered wig.”

The simplest, and most beautiful, song on the album, “Day After Tomorrow,” is a despondent soldier’s letter from Iraq. It says “I am not fighting for justice/I am not fighting for freedom/I am fighting for my life.”

The world of “Real Gone” is not a happy place. Sin, murder and shadiness thrive, while Mr. Waits questions the referee: “Tell me how does God choose/whose prayers does he refuse?”

Care to take a guess whom Mr. Waits will pull the lever for today?

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