Since it’s hard?and possibly verboten?to say a bad word about Tom Waits, unholy shaman of whacked-out Americana, I’ll content myself with expressing a few mild reservations. From the startling departure of Swordfishtrombones?over 20 years old now?Tom’s every subsequent move has been worth following with avid fascination. But with 2002’s simultaneously released Alice and Blood Money, it seemed he was veering off into wilfully art-wank Hal Willner territory. The marvellous Mule Variations from 1999 at least leavened its moments of gruff weirdness with plaintively unaffected piano ballads like “Pony”. Now here comes Tom with a new album that features no piano at all, just a cacophonous brew of ‘human beat-box’, threadbare Larry Taylor bass and jagged Marc Ribot geetar.
Waits is still taking more risks than most US ‘singer-songwriters’ of his generation, and parts of this album rock righteously. It’s just that some of Waits’musical modes?the Fat Possum stomp of “Shake It”, the Tod Browning gallery that is “Circus”, the sepulchral loungecore of “Dead And Lovely”?have been done before, and much better. By him. The templates for Real Gone?”Temptation”, “Such A Scream”, “Lowside Of The Road” et al?were altogether more satisfying. Hearing those marvels reprised in “Don’t Go Into That Barn” and “Baby Gonna Leave Me” suggests that Waits is chasing his own musical tail.
What does redeem Real Gone is a small clutch of songs that stick their political necks out. The eight-minute “Sins Of My Father”, with its fretless banjo and muted rock-steady groove, alludes none too obliquely to George W and the Florida rigging, while the warped Afro-Cuban groove of “Hoist That Rag” hints strongly at the Bush administration’s jingoist warmongering. But the most affecting song is saved for last. “Day After Tomorrow” is almost out of place here, so plain and unalloyed is its message in the form of a letter written home from the war front. Are you listening, Rumsfeld? A whole album in the vein of “Day…” might be the most radical thing Tom Waits could do next. One from the heart, in other words.