Say what you will about Tom Waits; he’s been slugging it out for decades. Love him or hate him, he has one thing that most music lacks today: soul. His album “Real Gone” is no exception to this rule. The truth is Waits connects with a very wide, yet selective audience. His music is an acquired taste for some and the answer to musicians too careful to bleed all over their songs.
“Real Gone” starts with the clattering signature bombast of broken instruments and Waits’ broken voice. Leaving no real expectation, he graces you with one of the best Waits compositions ever, “Hoist That Rag.” A guitar that sounds like it was recorded in the trunk of a ’57 Chevy runs the gambit in this blues drenched gem. Tom Waits voice cracks in with a truly beautiful melody. Only to be accented by a distant stand up bass, claps and brush muffled percussion, “Hoist That Rag” then moves into a guitar solo so intense it almost breaks from the song.
In an unusual move, the next song on “Real Gone” spans 10 minutes. That is the effect that Waits – never one to churn out radio-friendly length works has been driving since his beginnings. “Sins of My Father,” is a testament to how what we do today affects us later, but in Waits’ case, his unabashed musical sensibility has not staggered, and from that he continues to write and record some of today’s most diverse music.
“Baby’s Gonna Leave Me” is one of the faster paced numbers on “Real Gone.” The raw nature of Waits’ recordings gives everything he does a hauntingly real feel. Even on CD, Waits’ music sounds as if it’s coming from a gramophone. The tone of the guitar is always slightly distorted, but more like an old speaker than any digital guitar pedal.
The mix of unconventional jazz and blues propel this destined classic in Tom Waits catalogue up there with “Rain Dogs.” Regardless, this is a step forward for Waits. Also with “Real Gone” there is no piano through the entire album. The lack of ivory keys makes “Real Gone” sound stripped down. The song writing comes to the forefront and is as solid as the man that refuses to repeat himself, succumb to critic’s stabs or even the strain of age. Musically, “Real Gone” has the spirit of a wise man too wise in fact to ever let himself get old.
The album ends with “Day After Tomorrow,” with just Waits and an acoustic guitar. This beautiful confessional sounds like he recorded it on a four track on the side of Waits’ bed as he woke up from a very telling dream. Ripe with conviction and his haunting wisdom, you come away hopeful but better for the ware. Then you realize that a Waits’ album can be an excellent learning experience for fans and musicians alike.
Bottom line: Waits isn’t for everyone, but those whom he has touched have rarely strayed. Without recording the same album over and over again, Waits challenges even his most devout listeners. But shouldn’t you expect that from an artist? It seems so vital, yet rarely practiced and because of this, popular music can often fall flat. Waits rarely falls anywhere short of greatness.