Real Gone, Tom Waits' first record since the double-whammy of Alice and Blood Money in 2002, clanks and wheezes and wails and pontificates, alternating cacophonous, uptempo tunes with theatrical narratives and Quaalude reggae. It's a great Waits record, populated, as always, with loners, losers, and outsiders.
Recorded real loud, Real Gone starts with the aggressive "Top of the Hill," a nasty take on hobo jungles. Like many other tunes here, it's a cry about how hard it is to make it. Waits uses his voice like an instrument throughout the album, spanning the guttural rasp of "Hill," the sepulchral blues of "Sins of My Father," and the croon of "Dead and Lovely." If at first Real Gone seems to lack reason (if not rhyme), it ultimately holds together. And if at first it seems chilly ("Circus" and "Don't Go into That Barn" are creepy and unforgiving), it's ultimately gentle. Thirty years ago, Waits seemed little more than caricature and caricaturist. As his voice and song craft have matured, his vocal style has acquired astonishing dimension, and his social visions have come into ever-sharper focus. What makes Waits so striking and singular is that his expressiveness makes for art that is sad and joyous at the same time. -- Carlo Wolff