The Good: Dark, Moody, Strong Blues tradition
The Bad: Often incomprehensible, Thematically tiresome, Most vocals
The Basics: In a fairly standard - for Tom Waits - outing, Waits presents a smoky, gloomy impression of the world that is Real Gone.
Tom Waits, I'm discovering, is an acquired taste. He is a raspy-voiced, dark-themed blues singer and he seems to be an artist people either love or can live without. There are some songs by Tom Waits I like, like "God's Away on Business." There are even songs on the album Real Gone I like. But I probably fall more in the category of able to live without Tom Waits as opposed to worshiping at his altar.
Real Gone is a fairly typical Tom Waits listening experience. It is dark and moody, unrelenting in its near-incomprehensibility. Waits is an artist whose discs should come with subtitles. The album does come with a booklet containing the lyrics and some of them actually seem to match his raspy exhortations.
Waits is a blues singer and he co-wrote and produced all of the songs on Real Gone. Most of the songs contain his voice (think five-year dead corpse with laryngitis) and a guitar. There are other instruments as well, a banjo, percussion, bass. But for the most part, the essential element for Tom Waits is his voice. And it's dry.
Waits' songs are universally dark. Opening the album with "Top of the Hill," Waits sings of the exhausting task of living. And he is poetic, but poetic in a way that poets might appreciate. Simply put, he has great ability with language, but often it sounds awkward with his voice and the style of music. Take the opening lines of "Top of the Hill:" "New corn yellow and slaughterhouse red / The birds keep singing / Baby after your (sic) dead / I'm gonna miss you plenty / Big old world / With our abalone earrings / And your mother of pearl." New corn yellow, slaughterhouse red, abalone, great imagery, fine poetics, lost amid the cords and beats of the music.
In short, Tom Waits works best when experienced as a crazy beat poet, less well as a musical artist. His gloom and noise overshadows what could be decent lines and sentiments. The exception is "Hoist That Rag," which is served by the shouting and bangs of Waits.
Of the fifteen tracks, "Hoist That Rag" and "Dead and Lovely" are probably the best mix of lyrics and music. Not coincidentally, these are two tracks where the lyrics are fairly easy to actually understand.
Who will like "Real Gone?" Tom Waits fans. People who are drinking themselves to death. People wanting elevator music to die to. This is it. If you like depressing blues that you can barely comprehend, Real Gone is probably a great album. Who is likely to not like this? Well, people who don't want their music to make them want to die. Anyone who likes their depressing music more feminine or British is unlikely to be grabbed by Tom Waits. I think I'd like a book of Tom Waits' poems, but that's not Real Gone.
The best track is the chaotic, but understandable "Hoist That Rag," the weakest track is the narrative "Circus."
For other music that is eclectic, be sure to check out my reviews of:
O, Brother! Where Art Thou? Soundtrack
More Than You Think You Are - Matchbox Twenty
Sand In The Vaseline: Popular Favorites 1976 - 1992 - Talking Heads
Check out how this album stacks up against others I have read by visiting my Music Review Index Page where the reviews are organized from best to worst work!
© 2012, 2006 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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