Tom Waits – Bone Machine: Round 36 – Tom’s Selection

As a consumer of music who rarely listens to the words, let alone thinks about their meaning, concept albums usually pass me by. So it was with a sense of mild despair that I scoured my collection once Nick had suggested this as the theme for our latest meeting. It turns out, once I had actually thought about the lyrical content of a few ‘possibles’ that I own far more ‘concept’ albums than I initially thought (I put the word concept in inverted commas here because I am still unsure as to what a ‘concept’ album is). But I read somewhere on the internet – and the internet never lies, right? –  that Bone Machine is a concept album about death (THE concept album about death?) and as it is also one of my favourite albums… in the world…. ever, I didn’t ponder the voracity of the claim for too long before convincing myself that I could convince the others that Bone Machine is most definitely an album with a concept. After all, even though it doesn’t have any pixie queens or made up kingdoms, it does have locusts…just like any other concept album worth its salt.

Then a funny thing happened. As I listened to Bone Machine in the run up to the meeting, I began to hear things I had never heard before. Like…the words, for example. Of course, I had heard the words before. But I had never really thought about them and how they fitted together with each other and what they were trying to say and the like, so whilst I had always loved the lines ‘What does it matter, a dream of love or a dream of lies? We’re all gonna be in the same place when we die’, loved the way they sound and the images they evoke, I hadn’t really thought about what Tom Waits was trying to say with them. And I never really thought about how this song, Dirt in the Ground, fitted with the preceeding The Earth Died Screaming and the succeeding Such a Scream, a song whose main character (presumably Waits’ wife Kathleen Brennan) has ‘a halo, wings, horns and a chain’. It seems an awareness that Bone Machine is a concept album about death (or mortality) has made me appreciate it even more, which is quite an achievement as it was already languishing somewhere in my top ten albums…in the world…ever.

Whilst I am a huge fan of Waits, I still section his albums into divisions. In my mind Mule Variations and Real Gone belong with some of the pre-Kathleen Brennan albums in the third division of Waits’ discography. Second division and we have Frank’s Wild Years, The Black Rider and Alice. First division – Swordfishtrombones and Rain Dogs.* But Bone Machine is the Tom Waits equivalent of Liverpool FC circa 1975-1985 (as opposed to Liverpool FC circa 2012/13 – sorry Graham, couldn’t resist). Unimpeachable! It’s a parched album, tinder dry and is the most evoking of tumbleweed/dustiness of all his records. I got to know it whilst spending a year in the Australian outback and I can think of no better soundtrack or location depending on which way you’re looking at it. And although the album is riddled with death, it’s by no means a depressing listen. As always, Waits treats us to some exquisite ballads (A Little Rain ends with the devastating lyric, ‘She was 15 years old and she’d never seen the ocean…and the last thing she said was “I love you Mom”), and the album ends with the kooky ‘pop’ song, I Don’t Want To Grow Up and the sweet redemption of the closer, That Feel.

For me however, it’s the one-two-three of Goin’ Out West, Murder in the Red Barn and Black Wings that elevate the album from classic to  top ten…in the world…ever….and now that I have thought about the words, it’s even better than before!

* Of the later Waits albums I do not own Blood Money, Orphans or Bad As Me so they are currently not ‘divisioned’. I am not really a fan of pre-Brennan Waits…they lack the all important ‘clank’, and they are unlikely to ever be ‘divisioned’ as a result.

Nick listened: I know Bone Machine pretty well, but in an abstracted, ambient-music way – when I ran the film and music department of the university library we used to play this album quite often in the office (it was an unusual office!), and it was probably my introduction to Tom Waits. I’ve since bought several other albums by him, and would count Rain Dogs as my favourite, with this coming in second. I’ve never really thought of it as a concept album about death, but then again I seldom have a clue what Tom Waits’ cheese-grater-and-bourbon voice is actually singing about. So yes, a great record (I adore Waits and Brennan’s clattering, ramshackle percussion and live-in-a-workshop[!] vibe), and brilliant to hear in the company of the DRC crew.

Graham Listened: Firstly, in order to qualify my selection for Round 38, I heartily agree    with Tom that members should not be too constrained by any particular theme. Having never heard a full album by Mr Waits this was a real treat. I can’t think of an album I have listened to in the last few years that conjures up such strong all round sensory images of the types of places it was recorded in/conceived in/meant to be played in/set in etc., etc. The equivalent of the physical poetry of Dalglish underpinned by the grit and steel of Souness and Case.

Tom Replied: …but what about Fairclough?

Graham Responded:………….

Rob listened: I love Tom Waits, but i’m not a completist. ‘Bone Machine’ is one of the two or three of his albums of the last 30 years that I don’t have so it was an absolute pleasure to hear it. I’m finding it hard to place it within the discography as for me Waits is one of those artists who just IS, like an elemental being, he just exists on some other plane. His work is unique and, as a body, almost unimpeachable. I certainly don’t have the critical tools to start dissecting it, I just love it all, like Nick Cave or Will Oldham.

I think I received a ribbing on the night for suggesting that he sounds lke he lives in a workshop full of broken instruments, but it’s flattering that Nick has appropriated the line nonetheless. I certainly can’t claim involvement in or comprehension of the Liverpool AFC metaphor which Tom and Graham seem to be one-twoing merrily along.


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