Tom Waits is a heritage act who doesn’t really play ball with the nostalgia crowd. Whenever there’s a rare news bulletin from Waits HQ I get a naive jolt of hope that he’s going on the road, and memories of his 2008 Glitter & Doom show in Dublin rear up, him clattering on top of a wooden crate that’s covered in flour, creating a smoke cloud in the ‘Ratcellar’ circus tent in Phoenix Park.
There’s never news of a tour though, and he didn’t go on the road in 2011 when he released his 16th LP Bad As Me. The latest “big news” isn’t a new album, but a reissue project – all his seven LPs on the Anti- label, everything he’s released in the last 20 years.
Waits and his wife and long-time collaborator Kathleen Brennan personally took on the “cursedly laborious” job, with him adding: “This restoration project could arrogantly be compared to restoring a faded tapestry, a painstaking process that requires meticulous attention to each colour faded thread.”
Most of the albums – Mule Variations (1999); Alice (2002); Blood Money (2002); Real Gone (2004); Glitter & Doom Live (2009) and Bad As Me (2011) – will be out on remastered vinyl for that special Tom fan in your life before Christmas, and the triple album Orphans: Brawlers, Bawlers & Bastards (2006) is coming out in 2018 as three separate LPs.
The Real Gone project stands out right away, as it’s marked down as “fully remixed” rather than remastered, with the new version due on November 24. Even in a catalogue so singular and freewheeling, Real Gone is a bit of an outlier. Waits’ 40-year journey from bar-room piano blues man to avant-garde vaudeville growler is a transformation on a par with Scott Walker’s post-70s descent into darkness, and Real Gone is a perfect distillation of his late-period experimentation.
At the time, Waits said Real Gone was an “alchemic universe of rattling chains, oscillating rhythms and nine-pound hammers”, rendering critics’ reviews useless in one line. Sonically, it crosses paths with 1992’s Bone Machine and the Bastards disc on Orphans – a claustrophobic junkyard clatter, battered into shape with jarring clangs, as if Einstürzende Neubauten had been commissioned to rip the blues apart. When I think of Real Gone being remixed I don’t imagine Waits in a pristine studio poring over a mixing desk – it’s a greaser from one of his 70s songs coming at the album with a wrench.
Much of Real Gone was composed a capella, with layers of “cubist funk” cut and pasted from live jams – including hip-hop scratching, industrial snares from Waits’ son Casey and strangled guitar from Marc Ribot.
So it’s a hands-on, primal affair, and Waits’ only album with no piano. He contributes “vocal percussion”, with his guttural take human beatboxing a spit-flecked series of phlegm-ridden belches and squawks. He says he recorded these beats in one take in his bathroom, which might have been a bog with the door hanging off, in the corner of a barn.
The human beatboxing clashes with heavy boot stomps on Metropolitan Glide, the supposed new dance craze that requires you to “whip the air like a rainbow trout and drag your tail-pipe till you bottom out”.
This playfulness spills over into a new collection of grotesque characters, the kind that shuffle through every Tom Waits album. His hideous hobo clique is rounded up on the opium-haze track Circus, with Waits slurring woozily into a dictaphone, recalling carny tales of “horse-face Ethel, “yodelling Elaine who had a tiny bubble of spittle in her nostril”, and Molly Hoey, “who had a tattoo made out of a cassette motor”. On Don’t Go Into That Barn, Waits concocts a murder ballad as gruesome as any Nick Cave black-heart drama, with a “black cellophane sky at midnight”, “birdless trees” and a psycho “getting high on potato and tulip wine”.
After a year of Trump lunacy, the George W Bush years seem kinda quaint, but Dubya forced the normally apolitical Waits to take aim on the song Sins of the Father, removing his gag to lament over the “dirty lie” and the “Star-Spangled glitter” around the 2000 election. It’s an 11-minute slithery, dubby death rattle, as if David Lynch had directed the disputed Florida count. Elsewhere, on anti-anthem Hoist That Rag, “smoke is blacking out the sun… all is fair in love and war”, and Waits hits death metal depths with his growling.
It’s not all growling from the gutter though. Album closer The Day After Tomorrow is a letter from a young soldier at war, who still maintains: “I still believe that there’s gold in the world,” as he “counts the days” awaiting discharge after service. Waits finally emerges from the sludge to actually sing over a simple plucked guitar. And even though “we’re just the gravel on the road”, there’s hope.