On 1992's "Bone Machine," Tom Waits told a gruesome tale of "Murder in the Red Barn." Now, on "Real Gone," he implores us "Don't Go Into That Barn."
Right. Like anyone could stay outside. We're drawn into this dark place by the irresistible rhythms -- even though they're played out via guttural grunts and whipcracks -- and by our own, very human curiosity.
"They found a map of Missouri / Lipstick on the glass . . . There's a killer and he's coming through the rye," Waits recounts on another track. "I want to know the same thing everyone wants to know: How's it gonna end?"
Over his long career, Waits has evolved from a quarter-to-3, set-'em-up-Joe cabaret crooner into a master of dark sonic landscapes and industrial clamor, but "Real Gone" proves he hasn't lost his songwriter's sensibility. (Nor has he forsaken clarity; despite his wild-man's growl, you can make out every well-chosen word.) The album plays to his strengths: the sometimes cryptic, sometimes universal narratives; the filtering of musical styles through, as another song title puts it, "Clang Boom Steam"; the masterly vocal presentation; and, most importantly, the songs themselves.
Every Waits album has at least one melancholy heartbreaker, and here it's the last of the 15 tracks, "Day After Tomorrow." A letter home from a miserable soldier in an unnamed war -- but references suggest it's a recent letter -- it evokes the plainspokenness of the press-gang ballads of the British Isles, laments in which patriotism is secondary to peace, love and family: "I'm not fighting for justice / I am not fighting for freedom / I'm fighting for my life and another day in the world here."
The rest of the album is more complex, but it seldom loses direction. Reggae and gospel are fused seamlessly in "Sins of My Father." "Metropolitan Glide" uses turntable scratching and heavy rhythms to suggest a dehumanizing shuffle. "Dead and Lovely" is simultaneously creepy and sentimental, a song Randy Newman will wish he'd gotten to first. "Baby Gonna Leave Me" has the rough-blues sound of an older Waits track, the theme to TV's "The Wire," "Way Down in the Hole." Only the spoken-word "Circus" goes beyond noir into murky, with too many whistles and belches. Still, it contains a classic Waits line, spoken by an unhappy wife: "I'd like to hammer this ring into a bullet."
Waits and wife Kathleen Brennan, who produced and wrote "Real Gone" together, have yet to exhaust their dark imaginations or to stop challenging expectations: You might not even notice the absence of that Waits staple, the piano. Even without keyboards, "Real Gone" builds a bridge to earlier work like 1985's "Rain Dogs." Guitarist Marc Ribot, who played on that album, here rejoins Waits for the first time since, and Larry Taylor, his bassist and guitarist since 1980, also contributes. But so do Primus members Les Claypool and Brian "Brain" Mantia, Shotgun Messiah's Harry Cody, and Casey X. Waits, whose turntabling does his dad proud. This is an album to savor, in a dark room, with headphones. Just keep the whiskey and Advil nearby.