Tom Waits is a brilliant musician. This album, Bone Machine, is not his best, nor his most well-known, and yet this still qualifies, with ease, for Sine Macula.
Bone Machine was released in 1992, Waits first proper album since 1987’s Frank’s Wild Years. In the years between the albums Waits did a bit of acting, and the only albums of music he released were a score to a Jim Jarmusch film, and a live album. Waits’ musical career can be easily divided into three periods: 1973-1982, in which Waits wrote albums of mostly piano music, focusing mostly on bluesy tunes and ballads; 1983-1991, in which Waits stripped down his music, and started utilizing a lot of different styles of music, most famously the influence of gypsy music in Rain Dogs; and then 1992-present, in which Waits’ instrumentation becomes both barren, and unusual to the point unrecognizable, sometimes. Bone Machine is the first and, probably, the greatest of his albums in this third period.
It’s an apocalyptic album. The world is bleak, dark, and twisted. Waits weaves narratives of misery and suicide, but leaves the listener, as only he can, with a sense of hope at the albums finale.
Waits emits a low rasp on “The Earth Died Screaming”, the album’s opener. Some quiet drums pulse beneath him as he growls, “With crows as big as airplanes/the lion had three heads/and someone will eat the skin that he sheds”. The song explodes, nighmarishly, as Waits screams, “And the earth died screaming/as I lay dreaming”.
The next song, “Dirt in the Ground”, is a haunted, funeral dirge of a song, sung in Waits’ rasping falsetto. The lyrics are suited to the sound–it sounds like a funeral, and the lyrics are essentially a twisted wake. Waits has a little wicked fun throughout the album, especially with the violent imagery in “In the Colosseum”, and on the tawdry “Such a Scream”.
Waits throws in his customary ballads, but here, even the ballads have a sense of despair. “Who Are You?” is as he asks questions to a broken woman: “Do you cry? Do you pray? / Do you still leave nothing but bones in the way? / Did you bury the carnival, lions and all?” On “A Little Rain”, Waits’ melancholy melody laments change, even while he tells himself that things aren’t so bad.
The final four tracks are a slow turn toward the light. “Whistle Down the Wind” is a slower song–another ballad–as the narrator realizes that if he stays where he is, he’ll rust, and as such, he resolves to “take the Marley Bone Coach and whistle down the wind”. “I Don’t Wanna Grow Up” is a tongue-in-cheek, punk inspired song, and Waits really lets himself go more than he has since “Big Black Mariah” on Rain Dogs. The lyrics are simplifications of the most adult of problems, and of the stubborn refusal to take them on. The song is the most accessible of the tunes on the albums, and comfortably sits among Waits’ most fun songs. “Let Me Get Up On It” is a minute-long track with Waits’ sort of jungle-rhythm while Waits wails wordlessly with the rhythm. The song isn’t much on its own, but serves as a perfect bridge to the final, and best, track on the album, “That Feel”.
That Feel is a collaboration with Keith Richards, and Richards bluesy, laid-back, barroom influence is clear. The lyrics are intentionally ambiguous, but can be applied equally easily to a long-time relationship, or to a personal hero, or as a personal statement. After the second chorus, Waits voice is joined by Richards, as well as overdubs of both Waits’ and Richards’ voices, in a loose barroom chorus. The track is a standout, and among Waits’ finest recordings.
“And there’s one thing you can’t lose
And it’s that feel.
You can throw it off a bridge,
You can lose it in a fire,
You can leave it at the altar,
But it will make you out a liar,
You can fall down in the street,
You can leave it in a lurch,
And you say that it’s gospel,
But I know that it’s only church.
And there’s one thing you can lose,
And it’s that feel.
It’s that feel.”