Tom Waits takes aim at the gorilla


Real Gone
Tom Waits
$29.95 RRP


"Writing songs about the war is like throwing peanuts at a gorilla", Tom Waits told the Los Angeles Times in August. "But then I think, look how important soul music was during the civil rights movement.

"Sometimes I feel we are way outnumbered and the dark side has one more spear. But folks in the arts — it's their job to put a human face on the war." And that is just what Waits does on Real Gone, his 17th album, released in early October.

With a career that has lasted more than 30 years, Waits has established himself alongside the likes of Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan as one of the great singer-songwriters of modern times.

More than anything else, Waits is a storyteller. His music has never been an end in itself, a nice tune to hum and forget, but the means by which to conjure images, set a scene and tell a few great tales with his characteristic wit. He has influenced countless other artists, P.J. Harvey one of the most notable, and his music has been covered by more commercially successful acts including The Eagles and Rod Stewart.

While his music has rarely been explicitly political, he has specialised in telling stories about those who are struggling, the down and out and those who are on the fringes of society. All the stories are delivered in his infamously rough and gravelly voice. He doesn't so much sing as growl.

He spent the 1970s singing alcohol-soaked songs that combined beat poetry, with lyrics like "Don't you know there ain't no devil, there's just god when he's drunk".

In the 1980s, Waits veered off into uncharted territory, creating what could be described as "junkyard circus" music. Waits used his unique sound, created by an array of homemade instruments, as a backdrop for surreal tales of the stranger, often sinister, side of life.

Real Gone continues in this vein. It is rough, messy, dirty and noisy. For the first time in his career, there is no piano playing, instead we have improbable use of turntables and even human beat-boxing, which sounds as if Waits is coughing up blood.

A great example is "Hoist that Rag", easily the best song on the album. The song is a savage indictment of patriotism and the cruel reality of war.

In "Sins of my Father", a long song that covers a lot of ground, Waits sings of a character "carving out the future with a gun and an axe", living "way beyond the gavel and the laws of man" in a world that "turns on nothing but money and dread". The song takes a detour through Florida: "Smack dab in the middle of a dirty lie/Star spangled glitter of his one good eye/Everybody knows that the game was rigged/Justice wears suspenders and a powdered wig."

The last song (bar a short burst of unrestrained Waits madness) is "The Day After Tomorrow", a simple straightforward ballad reminiscent of Waits' early music. It takes the form of a letter written from a confused, scared and homesick soldier to his love back home. Like "Hoist that Rag", the word "Iraq" is never mentioned and the songs could conceivably be about any modern war — but it is impossible to mistake the very contemporary point.

Waits' soldier expresses his doubts. "I still don't know how I'm supposed to feel bout/All the blood that's been spilled/Will God on his throne/Get me back home/The day after tomorrow?" The soldier declares: "I'm not fighting for justice/I'm not fighting for freedom/I'm just fighting for my life and/Another day in the world here/I'm just doing what I've been told/We're just gravel on the road/And only the lucky ones come/Home, on the day after tomorrow."

The weakest song on an otherwise consistently good album is the spoken word "Circus", which feels tired and cliched. The rest of the album is made up of well-executed and vivid songs covering the standard Waits fare: heartache, death and just how ugly a Saturday night can be.

However bizarre he often makes his music sound, Waits actually stays within the general parameters of popular music and knows how to churn out a great tune. He simply takes popular music, drags it through the mud, beats the living hell out of it, puts it on the rack and turns it inside out. On Real Gone Waits proves again why he is one of the best and genuinely original artists around.

From Green Left Weekly, December 1, 2004.
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