After slowly edging away from the Beat-inspired after-hours-songman sound that first brought him fame, Tom Waits radically reinvented himself with the 1983 album Swordfishtrombones. Waits' new songs sounded like they were performed on junkyard instruments, and the approach gave his tales of losers and drifters an air of danger: The poignancy that surfaced sounded hard-won and not the least bit sentimental. Since then, Waits has continued to strip down his sound and coarsen his edges. Each succeeding album sounds a little more primitive, as though they're dipping further back into the 20th century for their instruments. But Waits' progression-through-regression ends with Real Gone.
Not that the album reverses the revolution of Swordfishtrombones, but those junkyard instruments now have a 21st-century twist. Real Gone's first sound, a scratching turntable, comes courtesy of Waits' son Casey. On some tracks, Waits provides his own percussion by looping his own grunts and moans. He dabbled with this approach on 1999's Mule Variations, but Real Gone goes all the way with it. "Metropolitan Glide," for example, sounds like a barnyard approximation of avant-garde dance music.
It all still unfolds in Waits country, however. There's something sinister going on inside the barn, young women meet untimely ends, that circus at the edge of town isn't the most pleasant place, and, in the end, the heartbroken always find some comfort in a song. Sometimes, a song is all they get. The homesick soldier of "Day After Tomorrow" yearns for a day that might not come. "Sins Of My Father" finds Waits rasping for more than 10 minutes about attempting redemption, but he never sounds confident that it'll come. On "Make It Rain," he howls for a change that seems unlikely to occur just because he demands it.
Waits again co-writes the songs with wife Kathleen Brennan and calls on his usual stock company (Les Claypool, Marc Ribot, et al) to back him up. But whatever comfort he feels with them seldom translates into comfortable music. The cut-and-paste, play-and-scratch touches don't dominate the album's sound, but they do dominate its spirit. Real Gone is haunted-house music that invites listeners in for some shared uneasiness, but never lets them settle for long.