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Abrasive Waits rubs the right way

They say the older we get the more like ourselves we become. No one bears this out better than Tom Waits. He keeps getting grittier and gruffer and rougher. On his new album, "Real Gone," Waits is human sandpaper lurching into the wheezing abyss. The music sounds like it was recorded in a shack, mixed in an outhouse, and played -- it makes no difference how expensive your system is -- through one ancient, irreparably damaged speaker. The familiar topics of death, destruction, liquor, sin, and murder are tended to in long, savage tales that have lost all interest in redemption.

Waits grows yet more daring. At 54, he's given up his own instrument, the piano. And while "Real Gone" ranks among Waits's most rambunctious collections, there are no drums on most of the tracks. Instead, the singer supplies a chaotic variety of vocal percussion, having taken up the art of beat boxing and retired to his bathroom to lay down coughs and growls and barks on cassette tapes that became the rhythmic centerpieces of the album.

We're talking about aesthetics, an evolving vision so crude and abrasive that at this point the mere hint of beauty -- and there are beautiful moments here -- is weirdly painful. The album is front-loaded with the hardest, creepiest songs. Marc Ribot's clawing guitar, Casey Waits's (the artist's 18-year-old son) whacked-out turntabling, and original Canned Heat bassist Larry Taylor's black burps make the honky-tonk ("Top of the Hill"), the mambo ("Hoist That Rag"), and the Jamaican rock-steady groove ("Sins of My Father") hurt like hell.

Waits still knows his way around a creaky ballad: "Green Grass" is a languid, whistling lament, and "How's It Gonna End" and "Dead and Lovely" are pungent, dusky bookends to the disc's most disturbed number: "Metropolitan Glide," which Waits calls cubist funk and sounds like James Brown on crystal meth.

"Circus" finds Horse Face Ethel and Yodeling Elaine drinking whiskey in Sheboygan -- Waits rolls the words around like mouthfuls of loaded dice -- and the artist returning to the familiar territory of spoken-word narratives. But mainly Waits wants everybody to tear their hair out, himself included. The beats on "Baby Gonna Leave Me" are, quite literally, the sound of the singer taking huge, violent bites of air. "Clang Boom Steam," an ominous and onomatopoetic mess of industrial blues, follows like a toxic chaser.

So when a gently picked acoustic guitar materializes at the close of "Real Gone," it's a powerful shock. And that's just what Waits must have had in mind with "Day After Tomorrow," a quietly devastating letter from a soldier -- and uncharacteristically topical screed from Waits -- who ponders the meaning of war: "You can't deny the other side don't want to die anymore than we do/What I'm trying to say is don't they pray to the same God that we do?/And tell me how does God choose, whose prayers does he refuse?/ Who turns the wheel, who rolls the dice, on the day after tomorrow?"

Waits's God may be indifferent, but at the close of a record that seems to reject all manner of grace and goodness, the soldier's lament is a strange, sad tonic.

Joan Anderman can be reached at

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