Tom Waits has worn a lot of hats in his 31 years of recording. Well, mostly that rumply fedora – the one that looks as if he'd picked it out of a dumpster behind a Salvation Army mission. But he's borne the mantles of bar-room poet, beatnik troubadour, lo-fi champion, and stumblebum sonic visionary with equal comfort and increasing success. Now add to those "protest singer."
"Real Gone" (Anti), which came out Oct. 5, is full of the ruminations on love, death and sin that have become his stock. But even Waits, who seems to have created his own universe both in the realm of his art and in the way he conducts business, appears to have been affected by the undercurrents of fear, violence and greed that now ripple through America. "Sins of the Father," with its broad images of destruction and doom, the spoiled-dreams ballad "Trampled Rose," and "Day After Tomorrow," a letter from a soldier to his sweetheart at home, all are distinct products of the post-Sept. 11 Bush era.
Of course, Waits isn't going Phil Ochs on us, and elsewhere on this odd-as-usual-sounding album, he introduces us to the residents of a gypsy circus and assorted denizens of the urban demi-monde. He also seems more in thrall of the late bluesman Howlin' Wolf than ever. Certainly Wolf, like the barbed-wire-throated hipster poet Lord Buckley, has always had some sway over the growling vocal tone Waits uses, but the tight-knit rhythmic interplay of Wolf's classic Chess albums has direct bearing on new tunes like "Don't Go into That Barn." Guitarist Marc Ribot, an occasional Waits accompanist since the mid 1980s, liberally quotes and pays tribute to Wolf's six-string foil Hubert Sumlin throughout Real Gone. And in case you thought Waits had exhausted his timekeeping arsenal after years of banging on chests of drawers, trash-can lids, and amplifier reverb boxes, well, he's got another instrument up his sleeve and in his soiled jacket: Tom Waits, human beatbox.
When Waits began his career, in 1973, with the album "Closing Time," he was in essence a modern variation on the Tin Pan Alley tunesmith. Granted, his address on that songwriters' row was strewn with cigarette butts and empty bourbon bottles, but if you shuffled the trash aside, there was plenty of hope visible, especially in the beautiful "Ol' 55," which was later recorded by the Eagles. After a long spell that might be called his Bukowski period, Waits started really surprising his listeners in 1985 with "Rain Dogs" (Island), a sensitive, urban album full of sweet dreamers and sweet dreams along with bumpy little miracles of shuffling rhythm like "Clap Hands," an angular number about being shanghai'd that would make a good soundtrack to the pursuit sequences in "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari."
There were brilliant albums in between, but perhaps the biggest surprise came in 1999 when his "Mule Variations" (Anti-/Epitaph) sold a million copies of its uneasy listening tales dipped in Delta mud and mania. Or maybe the shocker was seven years earlier, when "Bone Machine" (Island), which set its lyrics of lamplight burials and backwoods slayings to a near-industrial crunch that many Waits diehards pronounced unlistenable, won a Grammy.
The blend of beauty and evil in "Real Gone" makes it a logical successor to Waits's double-album blitz in 2002, when he released "Alice" and "Blood Money" (both on Anti-/Epitaph) simultaneously. Both of those discs were dark and tormented. In "Alice," Waits spun Lewis Carroll's obsession with Alice Liddell, the girl for whom he wrote "Alice in Wonderland" and "Through the Looking Glass," into an often-affecting ode to unrequited love. No easy task, that, but soft-centered tearjerkers like "Fish & Bird" resonated with the same undisguised sentimentality as the Waits standard "Tom Traubert's Blues" from '76's "Small Change" (Island). "Blood Money" was another crimson-drenched matter, full of croaking odes to Mammon packed with lies, lust, and murder.
"Real Gone" embraces both ends of that thematic spectrum and wastes no time raking muck. "Hoist That Rag," the second tune, comes slithering in on upright bass played by Primus's Les Claypool, and it sounds like the tale of a couple of lowlife mobsters – until we learn that they have the power to "heave and turn the world around." "At night I pray and clean my gun," a thug sings, also offering a concise depiction of George W. Bush's contradictory ethos. As for the "rag," it's likely wearing stars and stripes.
Waits slides into his warmest croon for "Sins of the Father," but the tone is equally strident as he indicts God, the Father, for His complicity in our bloody affairs of state, which put us "smack dab in the middle of a dirty lie/The star-spangled glitter of his one good eye/Everybody knows that the game was rigged/Justice wears suspenders and a powered wig." "Trampled Rose" is more delicate all around, with Waits summoning the memory of gentle metaphorical dreams of the days when Americans shared a vision of their nation as an influence for good – a beacon of diplomacy, leadership, hope, and justice at home and abroad.
The most poignant of these politically loaded numbers is "Day After Tomorrow." Waits uses a hoary songwriter's device, a young soldier's letter home, but he gets so deep inside the character that you're not likely to remain untouched. The letter speaks of missing the banality of raking leaves and shoveling snow at home in Rockford, Ill., as the music gently hums along. "I still believe there's gold at the end of the world," Waits sings in a cottony melody as the solider hangs onto his ideals while waiting for the airplane that will wing him back to the U.S. in two days. But he also wearily reports that "they fill us full of lies, everyone buys/About what it means to be a solider/I still don't know how I'm supposed to feel/About all the blood that's been spilled." He goes on, "You can't deny, the other side don't want to die any more than we do/What I'm trying to say is don't they pray to the same God that we do?/And tell me how does God choose/Whose prayers to refuse." His conclusion: "I am not fighting for justice/I am not fighting for freedom/I am fighting for my life and another day in the world/Here I just do what I've been told/We're just gravel on the road/And only the lucky ones come home."
There's more to "Real Gone" than reflections on our current collective predicament. Fans of Waits the nighthawk will dig his detailed portrait of the twisted soap-opera characters who populate his "Circus," like Horse Face Ethel and her Marvelous Pigs and one-eyed Myra, the ostrich trainer. And "Metropolitan Glide" assembles the motliest crew of shady partiers since the Chicago blues songwriter Willie Dixon first pitched his "Wang Dang Doodle." The disc opens with a DJ cutting and Waits whipping his wind before raggedly piping into a rhythmic chuff and grind. Elsewhere, flashes of Jamaican rocksteady and Latin beats and melodies seep into the stitching of this singular songsmith to fit his quirky design.
But the warm blood of the blues give plenty of these songs their pulse, and in particular the stylings of Howlin' Wolf. "Shake It" is a refraction of Wolf's "Shake for Me," and the intense rhythmic interplay of Waits's musicians, who include his long-time accompanist Larry Taylor playing most of the bass lines, recalls the brazen, seamless chug of Wolf's greatest ensemble on the 1962 "Rocking Chair" Chess album. "Don't Go into That Barn" even lifts the guitar riff from Wolf's "I Ain't Superstitious," but by the time that rumbles in, almost halfway through the 16-song album, it's no surprise. Marc Ribot is saluting Hubert Sumlin, that riff's inventor, right from the start – when he's not making like a Latin king or a '50s jazzbo.
Ribot deserves a lot of credit. Sumlin, who is currently recovering from a heart attack and stroke, is not an easy musician to emulate. His 1950s and early 1960s performances with Wolf were decades ahead of their time, full of slippery zinging sounds, extreme note bending, key-defying solos, and terse riffs that yanked strings in all directions. It's fair to say Sumlin remained in a league of his own until the late Robert Quine came along in the late 1970s to make similarly idiosyncratic statements supporting punk poet Richard Hell in his band the Voidoids and, later, Lou Reed.
That kind of idiosyncrasy possessed by Waits, Wolf, and Sumlin is a mark of greatness. No matter what source, style, and predecessors such artists draw upon, in the end, they always sound like themselves. And in that way they bare a part of their souls – which in turn allows us to see and to feel a little bit more of our own.