Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Waits Breaks Loose

"I’m always looking for sounds that are pleasing at the time. The sound of a helicopter is really annoying until you’re drowning, and it’s there to rescue you. Then it sounds like music."
-Tom Waits, in Sasha Frere Jones' New Yorker review/feature
Like Randy Newman, Tom Waits already sounded like an old man on his first record, so it shouldn't be a surprise that both artists are still going great guns. And while Waits' new record Bad as Me sounds more or less like what you'd expect from him—the carnival-barker-bluesman-in-a-barn shtick—the record's penultimate track, "Hell Broke Luce," is a shattering breakthrough. On 12th listen, give or take, I'm prepared to say that this howl of PTSD rage ranks as one of the five or 10 best things he's ever done, and in a sense it's the work that his entire career has built up to.

What do I mean? While Waits has expressed anger and vitriol before, there's often been a comforting theatricality about it, a once-removed wink that lets us off the hook a little bit, puts a little literary distance between his howling and yowling and the realm of authentic pain and suffering. When he's barked "God's Away on Business" or "Misery Is the River of the World," he's done it with an emcee's leer; you can see the crumpled top hat and gold-toothed grin; even the harrowing "Murder in the Red Barn" has a camp Guignol affect about it. When Waits has poured real ache or outrage in his songs, it's been in quieter songs like "Georgia Lee" ("Why wasn't God watching? Why wasn't God listening? Why wasn't God there for Georgia Lee") or the uncharacteristically topical panorama "Road to Peace."

"Hell Broke Luce" is something else altogether: Its anger and confusion and nastiness are immersive and immediate. It's the first time, it seems to me, that Waits has used all that trademark clatter and atmosphere—the handclaps and stomps and echoes, and in this case, gunfire and what sound like ululuations—to put us viscerally into a scene rather than to powerfully suggest a mood ("Clap Hands," most of Swordfishtrombones) or, if he's telling a more conventional story ("Franks Wild Years," "What's He Building in There"), to put us in the presence of a narrator, a raconteur. There's no such distancing screen here, or if there is, it's fused to the narrator's own dissociative disorder. His name seems to be, or used to be, Geoff, an Iraq war veteran who's seen some fucked-up shit that's still rattling around his brainpan. And I do mean rattling—the phrasing and form of this song, though artfully controlled (check out the "Taps" moment at 1:52), is as disorienting as its noisescape. I swear here advisedly, too, just as Waits does in the song: The man's language, for all its pungency and ugliness, has very seldom been outright profane, so it's arresting to hear him simply declare within three lines, "That big fuckin' bomb made me deaf."

If you've ever glibly joked that Tom Waits sounds like a crazed homeless person screaming at you on the train, this song will straighten that grin right out; this doesn't sound like play-acting anymore. Just as he's spent the better part of his career honing his skills creating bang-on-a-can soundscapes, I think that Waits has had to go through a whole career of playing the addled and dispossessed, of trying on the hobo's clothes, to earn the right to be inside Geoff's skin. He's definitely crawled into it, and damned if this song won't crawl under yours, too.

Indeed, it's interesting that Frere-Jones' New Yorker piece pegs another song on the record, "Talking at the Same Time," as sounding like an outtake from Threepenny Opera, when it's "Hell Broke Luce" that is clearly a "Kanonen-Song" for the age of IEDs and scrap-metal Humvees. Waits practically quotes the Brecht/Weill tune's catalogue of casualties:
Kelly Presutto got his thumbs blown off
Sergio’s developing a real bad cough
"Real bad cough" might double as a description of Waits' voice. He's never used it with such lethal purpose before.

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