Tom Waits - Bone Machine - Review
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critics' view

I grew up in a small town called Sebastopol, in Northern California’s Sonoma County. It’s a very eclectic little place, full of both hippies in dreadlocks who dance in the town square to celebrate menstruation and conservatives in Wranglers who work on dairy farms. There’s an artist who makes a significant living creating sculptures out of stuff he finds at the dump (beautiful and well-constructed pieces of art, I might add), and a man who runs several miles around highway 116 every morning wearing not much more than a glorified thong. There’s an extremely popular Whole Foods with a parking lot full of Priuses and a city council that only a few years ago was dominated by the Green Party. The first Starbucks was barely able to infiltrate starting in 2001, when surrounding cities already had stores on every other corner. Recently, one woman managed to prevent a citywide wireless system from being implemented because she believed that the signals would give her brain cancer. The list goes on, but you get the idea.

Tom Waits lives in Sebastopol, or so the story goes. And knowing Sebastopol from an intimate standpoint, it’s clear to me that there are few other places in which Tom Waits would fit in, and a place that could also manage to accurately represent the extraordinary singer-songwriter and his endless quirks. His musical repertoire, in regards to sheer number and undeniable talent, is matched by few others, but it’s easily forgotten that there was a five-year break between 1987′s Frank’s Wild Years and 1992′s Bone Machine. He’s released so many studio albums in his time, though, so these gaps in time aren’t often remembered, nor does it really matter if they are.

Bone Machine is a morbid and ominous masterpiece, spare and elegant and supremely powerful in its subtlety. It features contributions from The Rolling Stones’ Keith Richards and Primus’ Les Claypool, and won a Grammy for Best Alternative Music Album. It was recorded and produced at the Prairie Sun Recordings’ “Waiting Room” in Cotati, Calif., an old cement hatchery room in the basement – just a cement floor and a hot water heater. The bluesy nature of the songs are brought back to a more typical Waits center by their rough percussive edges – i.e. Les Claypool supposedly playing human bones on the intro track.

“Dirt in the Ground” is absolutely spectacular: the instrumentation is so quiet that you forget it’s there until it’s not, and Waits’ vocals have never sounded so stiffly hoarse, even painful at times. In fact, much of Bone Machine is not necessarily easy to listen to, as is much of Waits’ music. He’s not trying to give you a tune to hum in the shower, to play at your child’s birthday party. I actually would not recommend playing this album late at night if you’re all alone in the house. The songs mostly all have to deal with death – “Earth Died Screaming” references the devil, “Dirt in the Ground” is a helpless existential proclamation, “All Stripped Down” is all about Judgment Day. And with this favorite madman, we wouldn’t have it any other way. Please, Tom Waits, never move out of Sebastopol and keep doling out the peculiarities, because every single one so far has been a stroke of genius.

Anna Gazdowicz
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