"And I want to know / the same thing / everyone wants to know / how's it going to end?"
Tom Waits' rhetorical question on "How's It Gonna End" is the same one we've been asking about Waits' celebrated musical career for ages: When does the steam run out? Where's the last stop on the train? And who's waiting there to pick him up? With each album the face that launched a thousand taxis releases, it seems like we're a little bit closer to that answer. Since his 1992 album Bone Machine broke the 1980s sequence of small-change operas (Swordfishtrombones, Rain Dogs, Frank's Wild Years) Waits has made records that fruitfully combine the seedy dime-store mythology of his early work, the threaded experimentalist vignettes of the '80s, and a dark, almost apocalyptic organic-industrial sound begun with Bone Machine. So if Tom asked us, "How's it gonna end?" on, say, 1999's Mule Variations, we pretty much knew. Of course, fans and critics and newcomers all loved it, but even its surprises were only surprises in some alternate Waits-less world.
So when Real Gone kicks off with the rhythmic chaos ("cubist funk," Waits calls it -- and that works) of "Top of the Hill," it's a little unsettling -- which is very, very nice. Piano entirely replaced by turntable scratches and kazoos and distorted vocal percussion (kind of a human beat-the-fuck-outta-the-box) juxtaposed fiercely against the more familiar strains of Rain Dogs-era collaborator Marc Ribot's guitar. And that mix -- Waits' singing (as opposed to his vocal percussion) is low enough in the mix to be a statement: This is about the rhythm, about the blurt and squonk of these godalmighty kazoos and nightmarish post-hip-hop turntables. And to fans and critics and newcomers alike, the fact that it's not really that good ... well, that's OK, right?
The scratching goes away, as does the not-so-good-ness. Pretty quick, in fact: "Hoist That Rag" is classic Waits; in fact, probably one of his best efforts since the long hiatus of the '90s. So bass-heavy, so Ribot-laden, so sonically overblown and desperate, and with a cast of characters ("well I learned the trade from Piggy Knowles / and Sing Sing Tommy Shay Boys") that doesn't seem like a Waitsian stretch, but rather a true Waits tale. What's more, "Hoist That Rag" plays out as part of Real Gone's milestone: For the first time, Waits has songs that one can see almost directly as comment on immediate and current situations, even if they are also timeless ones. So when Tom gruffs out blackened vocal chordage like "God used me as a hammer boys / to beat his weary drum today," and "So just open fire as you hit the shore / all is fair in love and war," it doesn't ring so much Iwo Jima as Fallujah.
It's a theme that continues on the much-discussed "Day After Tomorrow" (no relation to the global-warming-gone-mad movie). Its Steve Earle-ish folk sound is direct, teary and powerful -- a classic folk and country genre, the soldier's-letter-home song, updated for today's American soldier, filled with confusion and terror and despair. But somehow it's not quite as stirringly scary as "Hoist That Rag," perhaps because the war it refers to isn't any kind of war we can understand and doesn't deserve a song we can decipher and raise a jar to so easily. Yet, in today's smash-and-grab approach to musical politicking, it's probably one of the finest and least ephemeral tunes of the times.
There are, however, some big losers here. "Don't Go Into That Barn" comes across as a songwriting exercise gone wrong, perhaps taking some kind of 19th-century American archaeological find from the local papers and going all "songwriter" on it. "Sins of My Father" is a beautiful five-minute epic -- except that it's 10 minutes long. For the vast majority of Real Gone, however, Waits seems to be re-energized by new sonic methods. Like on "Baby Gonna Leave Me," a standard "My baby went and left me / in a '49 Ford" Tom Waits blues, but converted by his beatboxing into something far beyond R.L. Burnside's hip-hop and electronica blues reworkings, and into timeless Tom. Or "Green Grass," a gorgeous old-school Waits composition -- spooky Beefheart vocals, simple guitar and bass, and lyrics that use, abuse and subvert Waits' own clichés (trains, weather vanes, things that smell like rain).
Tom Waits hasn't subverted any dominant Tom Waits paradigms on Real Gone, but rather added to the arsenal with a few new tricks that ought to reappear throughout the remainder of his productive years. Of which it seems there may be many more to come. As long as Amtrak stays open and rain keeps falling, it seems like he'll have something to write about. And while Waits may not keep us guessing how things will end, it's plain to see that the middle parts are entirely up in the air.