In 1992 the world was waiting for a new Tom Waits album. It had been five years since Frank’s Wild Years (which still remains one of my favourite albums of all time)
Not that Tom had been idle. He appeared in films as diverse as Ironweed, At Play In The Field’s of the Lord to Coppola’s Dracula. He also released a live album, Big Time, with an accompanying concert film. Then there was a strange collaboration with William S. Burrows on a theatrical project called The Black Rider: The Casting of the Magic Bullets. A CD would later be released in 1993, simply entitled The Black Rider, but even hard core Waits fans found it hard going. Tom also did a soundtrack album for Jim Jarmusch’s A Night on Earth. I used to have a copy of that soundtrack, but when I was burgled in 1992, it was taken, and I have never gotten around to replace it. And there were many other projects.
So Tom was pretty busy, but as fans wanted a new album, and finally after a five year wait, we got it with Bone Machine. However, as the title would imply, it was a pretty scary collection of songs, dealing with death, suicide, murder, and suspicion.
Bone Machine is pretty much a musical apocalypse, and the first track, Earth Died Screaming sets the scene and establishes the themes prevalent on the album. The title, Earth Died Screaming suggests that it is ‘end of days’ and that end is not pretty. Musically, a discordant percussive beat sounds like bones being banged together, and Waits voice over the top sounds creepy, almost a whisper. But not a soft whisper, a croaky, guttural monotone, with a hint of a hellfire and damnation preacher’s sermon to it. Albeit, as if the sermon was being delivered by a preacher whose Church has collapsed and the stone blocks have pinned him to the floor. Trapped, he now has to meet his maker. He says, “Well hell doesn’t want you. And heaven is full. Bring me some water. Put it in that skull.”
The next track, Dirt In The Ground is a wistful lament, that has a funeral march sound to it. Once again Waits suggests that “…hell is boiling over. And heaven is full.” And what is the future of mankind, well “We’re all gonna be, yea, yea, we’re all gonna be, just dirt in the ground.”
Such A Scream. In this case ‘scream’ doesn’t mean a throaty yell of terror but a good time, as in ‘that was a scream!’ And the repeated phrase is ‘She’s such a scream’. However the ambiguity is, as to whether the ‘she’ is a woman, or a machine? Musically, the song grinds and clangs like a large steam driven industrial behemoth.
On Bone Machine, Waits adopts several vocal styles. Sometimes he sings in the familiar growl. On other occasions he croons like a bargain basement Sinatra. Then there’s his falsettos, and bullhorn diatribes. And many of the songs have combinations of these stylings. He’ll adopt one vocal style for the verse, and then another for the chorus. All Stripped Down is a great example of this, with a bullhorn intro, then a falsetto voice through the verses, and then adopting a familiar growl for the ‘All Stripped Down’ lyrical refrain over the top.
Who Are You is a ballad in a more recognisable Waits style, although guitar driven, rather than seated at a piano. The Ocean Doesn’t Me is just plain creepy. It’s a rambling monologue by man who is clearly contemplating suicide by walking into the Ocean. But seems to be leaving a part of his demise to fate. He expects to be caught up in a rip tide and get dragged out to sea, but on this particular occasion, he isn’t taken. There is no sadness or self pity in the song. It is all matter of fact – and it would appear just a matter of time – until he succeeds in killing himself, or to put it another way, the ocean takes him.
Jesus Gonna Be Here is a blues spiritual, but also another song that reinforces the theme that the world has gone to hell. A Little Rain once again sees Waits in ballad mode, and this time seated behind a piano. The number almost has a country & western feel to it, with pedal steel guitar in the background. In The Colosseum sees a return to primal skeleton dance music, such as the opener Earth Died Screaming. The percussion sounds like bones being beaten together and the melody is reminiscent of carnival music, albeit a carnival that has gone very wrong. And I guess reflects the spectacle on display in the titular Colosseum – violence as entertainment.
Goin’ Out West is the song that got all the airplay on the indie radio stations, and it’s not a bad little number either. Well, see for yourself. Here’s the video clip.
Uploaded to youtube by: uglycliche
A song with a title like Murder In The Red Barn probably needs little description. However it is not so much as a song about a murder, but the suspicion that falls on everyone after the event, up until the killer is caught. Black Wings could be about the devil, or it could be about a serial killer – or the devil as a serial killer. Musically the song is foreboding but it has a great sense of atmosphere, and the lyrics are very evocative.
Whistle down the Wind is country and western song which features Churchy piano, with some lap steel guitar lilting in the background -and later some harmonica and violin. Vaguely familiar of Tom Traubert’s Blues, Tom croons the lyrics gently, that if you consider his gravelly voice capable of crooning.
I Don’t Want To Grow Up is as close as Tom comes to pure pop – even more so than Goin’ Out West. There is a duality to the lyrics – partially from a child’s point of view – but also through Tom’s delivery, clearly about an older person refusing to accept that they are aging. It has a real sing a long quality to it, and it is not so surprising that in recent years it has become one of his most covered songs.
Let Me Get Up On It is a musical soundscape which sounds like chains being reeled in. At under a minute in length, it doesn’t really have time to draw you into the song musically, so it acts as a bit of atmosphere leading into the last song…which is:
That Feel is Tom Waits and Keith Richards hamming it up. It’s not a bad country and western style number, but it they overdo the two old soaks routine a tad. Never-the-less it’s a smooth way to go out, and after all the death, and destruction over the previous tracks, it’s nice to leave with something that, while not being uplifting, is certainly more upbeat.
I guess it would be fair to say that Bone Machine is a heavy album, and if you’re not in the mood for it, a downer! But it is unique. Sure some of the musical stylings have been recycled from Rain Dogs and Frank’s Wild Years, but here they have been twisted (and possibly tortured) into something new. A song such as Downtown Train (from Rain Dogs) would be suffocated on an album like Bone Machine. Downtown Train, even if it is about longing and loneliness, still has a glimmer of hope. The songs on Bone Machine don’t have that battered nobility. They have been beaten and lost all hope. The only future is death. Sure it’s nihilistic, but after twenty years of singing about society’s have-nots where could Waits go musically? Light pop? Not likely. The only place he could go was down. And down he went. Bone Machine is a descent into hell.
As an artist, Waits stands defiantly against prevailing trends in rock and pop music. Bone Machine was released in 1992, and try comparing it to the other popular albums and musical artists of the day; such as Nirvana’s Nevermind (released in 1991 – but topped the charts in 92), or Michael Jackson’s Dangerous (once again released in 91). 1992 was also the year of Achy Breaky Heart by Billy Ray Cyrus – which became the first single ever to achieve triple Platinum status in Australia also the best selling single the year. Scary, I know! Waits has never been a follower, always choosing to do his own thing, and Bone Machine is a testament to his unique vision.