Tom Waits has been on a pretty darn good roll over the course of the past 10 years or so. He's not only carved out a niche for himself that is almost completely unique in this era, but he's also remained remarkably steady during the course of his past 5 or so releases. His dual releases of Alice and Blood Money a couple years ago climbed to the top of my list of his favorite work ever because of the above reasons. With those releases, he struck gold with just about everything he tried, whether it was ranting and raving in German over deranged horn skronks or crooning a beautiful, aching track.
Lest you think that Waits has been taking it easy, Real Gone is a disc that packs a wallop. Calling it an epic release probably isn't an understatement. At 16 tracks and over 70 minutes, it probably goes on a bit long in places, but once again Waits finds himself on a roll, even if a couple tracks (in theory at least) seem like self-parodies rather than honest-to-goodness pieces. One of the first things that's noticible about this release is that he's done away with much of the niceties. Real Gone opens with the scratching, scatting, rickshaw "Top Of The Hill," and Waits spits out vocals as Mark Ribot adds some dry, bluesy guitar and the whole thing lurches along like it's going to fall apart at the seams.
"Hoist That Rag" follows and is even more gutteral as Waits sounds like he warmed up his voice with a tumbler of scotch and pebbles. Ribot is back again and Les Claypool shows up on bass, the two playing off one another with almost a flamenco feel while Waits howls away. Needless to say, it's insanely catchy, and "How's It Gonna End" keeps the ramshackle ride going with a nearly 11-minute track that tests the attention span. Like many of his releases, the percussion on Real Gone is just about as organic as it gets. Instead of actual drum kits, most of the percussion is hollers, stomps, scratches, and general thumps and pounding made by possessed musicians. It fits the music perfectly in places, and even if it lacks in sharpness, it makes up for with sheer gusto.
I think that many have described Waits' music as twisted carny music before, so it may be sort of an in-joke that he chose to do a song that really is just that with "Circus." Over a very simple backdrop of bells and chamberlain, Waits chronicles the life of the outcasts. If some sort of studio stupidly decides to remake Freaks anytime in the near future, the very least they could do is hire Waits for the soundtrack. Overall, the album doesn't show quite the range that some of his previous works have done, but if you enjoy Waits, you're definitely not going to go wrong here. He's always got a trick up his sleeve, and proves it by ending the release with "Day After Tomorrow," one of the prettiest tracks he's done in a long time, and easily one of the quieter pieces on the entire album. I think we can officially declare him a national treasure at this point.