The first track of Tom Waits’ Real Gone captures the inventive spirit pervading throughout the album. The opener, “Top of the Hill”, begins with Waits beatboxing. Fifty-five years old at the time of the album’s release, the ex-blues singer was still experimenting and refusing to make a predictable record. Naturally with Waits’ ambition, failures are not uncommon, but Real Gone demonstrates an enjoyable balance between misfires and home runs.
“Hoist That Rag” was the album’s most popular hit back in 2004. The guitar rhythm is the perfect touch to embellish the piece with brilliance. Waits’ famous growl makes the song sound almost like heavy metal (something the strange and misguided album artwork also suggests). It takes multiple listens to appreciate the track, but when you get past some of the more jarring aspects, it’s stellar.
“Sins of the Father” is another masterwork. It’s a ten-minutes exercise in lyrical poignancy. After the thrashing aggression of “Hoist That Rag”, it’s reassuring to listen to a softer song. What works most about the track is the gravelly sound of Waits’ voice. Between the years of 1974 and 1976 his voice changed drastically. He lost his smooth and bluesy sound and acquired the voice of an aging drunk. While he certainly wasn’t as harmonious afterwards, this change allowed him to draw more emotion from his voice. It permitted him to sing in a way that better suited the downbeat music he makes. Talking Heads singer David Byrne once said, “the better a singer’s voice, the harder it is to believe what they’re saying.” Waits doesn’t have a “good voice”, but he certainly has one we can accept. “Sins of the Father” is the quintessential example of his voice being in touch with his rough lyrics and tone.
A significant problem with “Real Gone” is the excessive dabbling in hard rock, something Waits never had an aptitude for. “Shake It” is trash. It’s an ugly song to the ear, where the vocals just fall flat. Whenever it comes on, I skip it without hesitation.
This album has a habit of incorporating horror themes into the music. “Don’t Go Into That Barn”, “How’s It Gonna End”, and “Dead and Lovely are absolutely terrifying. Waits’ voice is an eerie whisper on songs written with chilling imagery. Certainly not a pleasant listen, but an effective one. Drenched in a ominous ambiance, they the perfect balance between morbidity and subtlety.
Waits brings back his beatboxing on “Metropolitan Guide”, “Baby Gonna Leave Me”, and “Clang Boom”, disjointed collages of sounds into the shape of a coherent beat. They’re the product of Waits on an experimental tangent.
Then there’s “Circus”. It consists of Waits speaking, rather than singing, and describing the environment of a circus show. The imagery is excellently vivid, but unfortunately, the song would work much better if read silently from a lyrics booklet.
“Trampled Rose” opens with Waits harmonizing. The track emphasizes on his voice and its lonely and battered sound. This is a superb song (and one later popularized by a Robert Plant and Alison Krauss duet) that makes the very best of its singer’s grating voice.
“Make it Rain” is the closest “Real Gone” comes to the easy-listening and popish vibe of his 1980 album “Heartattack and Vine”. This is a good song, but not too much more. It features a smooth guitar and a beat that, when accompanied by the vocals, feels very lively.
The next song is another folks song. It’s a melancholic and well-written number, dominated by Wait’s vocals and a gentle acoustic guitar. This is the album at its most tender, a quality it lacks in its worst moments and capitalizes on in its best.
I still prefer his earlier recordings. Couldn't find a gem among this CD like one can in his early stuff.
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