Tom Waits

Bone Machine

Island, 1992

Waits' latest continues the junkyard rhythms and tortured vocals common to his last few albums. In fact, that's almost all there is. Several songs feature, besides voice and percussion, only acoustic bass and some sprigs of distant guitar. The pump organ and accordion are all but gone, and with them the cabaret stylings. All of which seems entirely appropriate for the songs here, which are among the bleakest Waits has yet recorded.

Recurring imagery suggests that the day of reckoning is coming, and noone is going to be saved. "Hell doesn't want you, and heaven is full" he sings in the album-opening "Earth Died Screaming". In the very next song he reiterates: "Hell is boiling over and heaven is full/we're chained to the world and we all gotta pull/and we're all gonna be just dirt in the ground". "All Stripped Down" also invokes the day of judgement. "Jesus Gonna Be Here" suggests the possibility of redemption, but unconvincingly: "Well I've been faithful/And I've been so good/Except for drinking/But he knew that I would." "In The Colloseum" invokes gory Roman spectacles. I'm not sure I can piece together a cohesive message from all this, but the overall effect makes "Rain Dogs" seem like "Singin' in the Rain" by comparison. Vocally, too, this is Waits' most extreme work to date. The distorted megaphone sound recurrs, as does the rasping falsetto, the latter combined with a lisp on "Jesus Gonna Be Here".

There are a few of Waits' more romantic ballads -- "Who Are You", for instance, with layered guitars, and "A Little Rain". These sound slightly out of place here, and serve to throw the rest of the album into even sharper relief. One of my favorite albums of the year, although those of you who thought "Frank's Wild Years" was too extreme are advised to keep your distance.

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