In 1988 Tom Waits recorded a version of “Heigh Ho! (The Dwarfs’ Marching Song)” for the Disney tribute Stay Awake. It was one of those covers that seemed almost too good to be true. Waits’ expressionist aesthetic perfectly fit the song from Disney’s creepiest animated feature, and his beastly phrasing transformed the Dwarfs’ cartoon underground into a veritable Moria, stripping their arduous toil of any workaday fun. And yet, you still got the sense Waits was telling us the work needed doing. Musicians who remain vital and challenging as they age accept their art as a job, without losing sight of their craft. In maturity, artists like Bob Dylan, Neil Young and Tom Waits make music for a seemingly circular reason: because that’s what they do.
Since the groundbreaking Rain Dogs/Swordfishtrombones/Frank’s Wild Years trilogy that solidified his post-singer/songwriter “junkyard circus” sound, Waits has worked in a similar style with minor tweaks. Real Gone, his first batch of material written specifically for an album since the uneven Mule Variations (Alice and Blood Money were composed for theater productions staged by Robert Wilson), signals his most dramatic shift in sound since the '80s. This time Waits keeps both the piano and the antique instruments tucked away in the shed and forges ahead with a small band centered on the tangled guitars of Marc Ribot and Harry Cody. But don’t take the minimal turn as a sign of mellowing; much of Real Gone is loud, rude and in your face, with Waits prodding his ragged croak to new extremes.
The first noticeably new element arrives on “Top of the Hill,” where the song’s rhythmic drive comes from Waits’ repeated scat phrases. It sounds like a loop but he actually recorded the wordless bits for the full duration of the song, preferring the inevitable human imperfections. The vocal adds unusual texture that suits Real Gone’s dirty production and stronger focus on rhythm; Waits must have agreed because he uses this technique on six of the 15 tracks. These songs with vocal accompaniment are generally upbeat and charging, and some, like “Metropolitan Glide” (a swinging cross-pollinated trashcan rumba) and “Baby Gonna Leave Me” (an almost a capella blues) are deliciously harsh and noisy. The band is fantastic (Ribot’s leads in particular are surprisingly inventive) and Waits’ lyrics are sharp as ever, packed with memorable phrases and strange-yet-familiar poetic imagery.
The remainder of Real Gone consists mostly of solid mid-tempo ballads, and only once, on “Day After Tomorrow” (the painfully lovely closer about a soldier stationed in the Middle East), does Waits indulge his sweet and sentimental side. A number of songs are too long (no way “Sins of My Father” needs to go on for 10 minutes) but otherwise the only serious misstep comes on “Circus,” a spoken-word piece about sideshow freaks that, at this stage, comes across as self-parody. Minor shortcomings aside, Real Gone marks another interesting uptick in Waits’ exceptional career. He’s on the march and whistling while he works, and it’s still a rewarding trek—following him down into that strange and dazzling mineshaft.