Music Banter - View Single Post - Trollheart's Album Discography Reviews: Tom Waits
View Single Post
Old 01-13-2022, 07:05 PM   #37 (permalink)
Born to be mild
Trollheart's Avatar
Join Date: Oct 2008
Location: 404 Not Found
Posts: 24,783

One of the longest hiatuses in Waits's career, five years would elapse between his last album and his next, but he would make up for that by producing two albums in 1992, one of which was a studio album that would go on to develop his interest in experimental music and lead to some amazing songs. The other, well, wasn't.

Bone Machine (1992)

Though I'm a big Waits fan, there are some of his albums that speak to me less than others. I really can't stand The Black Rider and could never quite get into Alice or Blood Money.This one, while not one of my favourites, still has a lot going for it and tends often to get overlooked when we talk of his music. The thing about Waits is that, to quote half of that pointless Forrest Gump phrase (of course you know what you're gonna get in a box of chocolates: most of them have little cards that tell you what's in each, at least over here they do) you never quite know what you're going to get with Waits. In some ways, that's what makes him so interesting and intriguing. He can play the most beautiful, heartbreaking piano ballad one track and quite literally spend the next one banging a chair leg against the wall while growling and then switch to a Spanish flamenco for the next. If any artist truly crosses most genres, it's Tom Waits.

Hell, crosses them? He goes over and back so often he knows all the border guards by name, and their kids and their pets!

So what do you get on Bone Machine? Well, you get, as Imentioned above, his first studio album for five years, and the first so far as I can see (and possibly the only) of his albums to win a Grammy, not that such things matter much to Waits I imagine. You get an album with sixteen tracks, varying from dark ruminations on murder to the innocence of youth, and featuring everything from a soft heartbroken whisper to a maniacal, ear-shattering scream. It's the latter we hear first, as the album opens on "Earth Died Screaming", that odd, organic percussion familiar to his fans the first thing you hear, then Waits grumbles the opening lyric before he screeches out the chorus as the strange almost discordant music that sounds like someone might be clapping and tapping the sides of beer bottles continues, the only really discernible instrument a plucked guitar that keeps the basic melody together. Waits' lyrics have always been colourful: here he talks about walking between the raindrops and growls "When Hell doesn't want you/ And Heaven is full/ Bring me some water/ Put it in this skull" --- this theme will return later in another song. As this one fades out though all the percussion is turned down and the melody taken by a sudden accordion sound with maybe trumpets and trombones? Hard to say with Waits.

I also like the lyric (well, it's the chorus, such as there is one) where he screeches "The Earth died screaming while I lay dreaming", which for me calls to mind a laconic comment he once made when he shrugged that he "slept through the sixties", the implication clearly being that he charted his own course, being not at all influenced by the music of the "summer of love" (though in fact he would have only been in his teens anyway) and here it's like Waits sleeps through the destruction of our planet. Hey, the Earth can go to hell: Waits is tryin' to take a nap, y'know? Keep it down out there, buddy!

There's a big doomy, funereal sound then for "Dirt in the Ground", with Waits utilising his falsetto vocal here - it's pretty amazing how he can switch from bassy baritone to alto soprano or whatever at the drop of a hat - and the song has a sort of lurching, drunken feel, a mixture of New Orleans funeral jazz (hey did I just invent a new music genre?) and gospel with again the theme returning - "Hell's boilin' over/ Heaven is full" - slow jazz horns taking the tune while a lonely piano plays in the background, Waits the solitary drunken prophet slurring in the wilderness. The horns then get all uptempo and are joined by guitar for the far more upbeat and a bit crazy "Such a Scream", with Waits going back to the harsh, growly drawl he's best known for. He does a great job on the guitar too, while the percussion manages to sound at times both organic and electronic at once. Things stay a bit madcap then for "All Stripped Down", Waits' voice taking on a sort of mechanical, robotic feel while also bringing back the falsetto to such a degree that it almost (almost) sounds like he's duetting with a female!

The first of several ballads next, in the country-flavoured "Who Are You", with a distinct memory of "Hang Down Your Head" from Rain Dogs and then "The Ocean Doesn't Want Me" (which was previously featured in my journal under the section "The Word According to Waits) is about as barebones as you can get, with ambient instrumentation to the max, Waits' voice almost a guttural whisper as he appears to contemplate suicide - "I'd love to go drowning/ And to stay and to stay/ But the ocean doesn't want me today" - but can't go through with it. There are wind sounds, low, muted percussion, bells and chimes and a real feeling of desolation and feeling alone. In its own way it's a scary, unsettling little piece, somewhat later echoed in "What's He Building?", even though it lasts less than two minutes. There's little time to dwell upon it though, because "Jesus Gonna Be Here", we're told, as Waits goes all evangelical with a big screeching vocal and something out of a gospel performance from the local chapter of Alcoholics Anonymous. A great twanging guitar from Larry Taylor supplements the double bass played by Waits, again the crazy preacher we met in "Dirt in the Ground".

Another standout is next, and indeed another ballad, in the superlative "A Little Rain", with that oft-used chiming piano and the vocal used by Waits to great effect on albums like The Heart of Saturday Night and Nighthawks at the Diner. I've theorised about the meaning of the lyric until I've given myself a headache, but I still can't pin down what's happening here. It does seem to concern a girl who went missing, and her father's efforts to track her down, as signified by the lines "She was fifteen years old/ And she'd never seen the ocean/ She climbed into a van/ With a vagabond/ And the last thing she said/ Was "I love you mom", the tune nicely countrified by pedal steel guitar. Back to that mechanical sounding voice and almost industrial rock music with "In the Colosseum", pounding, manic drumming and more great double bass from Taylor, and things stay fairly hectic for the next few songs, with "Goin' Out West" great fun, staring off with an almost Peter Gunn-style guitar. Supermassive percussion thunders in and it rocks along at a fine pace while "Murder in the Red Barn" is a slower, more menacing song with some great banjo work from Joe Marquez and a squawking vocal from Waits, the percussion almost like someone tripping over the kit.

Another standout in "Black Wings", with a great example of how strange, weird and wonderful characters people many of Waits's songs, and he weaves stories - real or imagined - around them, this one being a mysterious stranger who can claim that "He's been seen at the table with kings" and "Once saved a baby from drowning" but that "One look in his eyes/ And everyone denies/ Ever having met him." With a great keyboard line and a melody almost out of one of those old Western movies, it's driven by a low, growling vocal from Waits as he relates the story of the legendary stranger, who is never named or referred to other than as "he" or "him". A real example of Waits's storytelling talent. Of course, credit must also be given to his wife, Kathleen Brennan, who co-writes half the songs here with him, and this is one of the ones on which they collaborate. The last ballad is another piano one, with Waits again in his persona of drunk at the keyboard crying into his whiskey, his voice strong and powerful and laced with anger and regret, the pedal steel adding a sense of pathos to "Whistle Down the Wind", then "I Don't Wanna Grow Up" is pure childlike fun, as Waits kicks, stamps and bashes his way through the tune with gleeful abandon.

There's a tiny little instrumental, less than a minute before we close on "That Feel", the only song on the album not written by him solo or with Kathleen. On this he joins forces with the Stones' legendary Keith Richards, and it has quite a Stones feel to it in its slow, almost haphazard bar-room atmosphere. Keef plays guitar of course and also adds backing vocals to the song. It's a little downbeat for a closer, not one of my favourites, but not a bad track especially on repeated listens, and it certainly gives you an idea of the sort of thing maybe Waits might indulge in after a recording session.


1. Earth Died Screaming
2. Dirt in the Ground
3. Such a Scream
4. All Stripped Down
5. Who Are You
6. The Ocean Doesn't Want Me
7. Jesus Gonna Be Here
8. A Little Rain
9. In the Colosseum
10. Goin' Out West
11. Murder in the Red Barn
12. Black Wings
13. Whistle Down the Wind
14. I Don't Wanna Grow Up
15. Let Me Get Up On It
16. That Feel

There's probably no such thing as a bad Waits record, and this certainly does not fall into that category at all, but compared to gems like The Heart of Saturday Night, Rain Dogs, Blue Valentine and Small Change it tends to fall a little short more often than it hits the mark in my book. Of course, with sixteen (okay, really fifteen: the tiny instrumental that almost closes it is not really worthy of being called a track) songs on it keeping up the rock-solid quality we've come to expect from Waits would be hard, and some of the songs are not as good as others. But then, some of them are truly excellent, and there are few if any on the album I would consider weak at all, just some that are perhaps not as strong as others.

I'm delighted he won a Grammy, at last, with this album and if you look back over the chart performance of Tom Waits albums you'll see with possible depression that they have rarely if ever troubled the upper echelons. In recent times, they've done better with 2011's Bad As Me breaking the top ten in both the US and UK, but that's only a tiny part of the story. Waits isn't about hit singles - don't think he's ever had one - or big album sales (though of course he's gotta eat. And drink. And smoke.) - he's more your performance artist who in another century would be unappreciated in his own lifetime and die a pauper, finding fame and a place in history only after he was long dead. Thank goodness that's not the case these days; even those who don't know of him or own any of his albums will have heard at least one of his songs, if only being covered by someone else. Springsteen's "Jersey Girl"? That's Waits. Rod Stewart's "Downtown Train". Yup, him again. Even Steve Earle's critically-acclaimed "Way Down in the Hole", from the TV series The Wire, is a Waits original. In fact, on one of the seasons they use his version as the theme.

Mad, bad and dangerous to know? Perhaps. A Mozart for our times? Quite possibly. The best album Waits has recorded? Not by a long way, but the worst? Worst? How do you attribute that word to this man's music? It's just, well, it just doesn't fit, ya know? Even Waits' weakest compositions kick the ass of most other bands, steal their lunch money and send 'em cryin' home to mama!

Rating: 9.2/10
Trollheart: Signature-free since April 2018
Trollheart is offline   Reply With Quote