i'll start off this (most likely unpopular) review by saying i'm a massive tom waits fan. to put the review in context, my favourite era is the mid-80s trilogy, which i hold up as a high water mark for music in the 80s. i also love his blues albums of the late 70s, the one from the heart album of 1982, and the heart of saturday night. i'm not a huge fan of his later albums (eg since 1987's frank's wild years) with the exceptions of the black rider and alice. i feel his work has faded into regurgitating his favourite themes in ever so slightly different ways, and his work is subject ot the law of diminishing returns. what seemed fresh and vibrant when he first did it seems less so, when you recognise the riff, when you recognise the lyric, when you recognise the format. it's the moment when you notice the card the magician has got hidden up his sleeve.
i would also say that i came to tom waits quite late (probably about a decade ago, and so listened to it in a fairly unordered sequence. therefore, bone machine was about the fourth album i listened to, etc, so i wasn't burned out by then - i just recognised the better writing and invention in the earlier stuff, and the stagnation in the later stuff. i also find he delivers his lyrics better in the older albums. his real strength for me over the years has been his simply wonderful lyrics, and powerful delivery. he has kept the beautiful voice, and in some ways that has got better. eg in the black rider and alice, that voice is so rich and powerful, there really is little in music to compare with it. it's an instrument as much as a voice, and he inhabits his different characters to wonderful effect. that voice is the reason i will always buy his albums. there's no fix like it. but in his later albums, the voice clouds the lyrics. his tunes have regularly been fairly familiar, it's why his work is thought of as representing americana. he has regularly inserted snippets of popular melodies, or appropriated nursery rhymes, sea shanties, etc, and mutated them to his own purpose. and that purpose has been beautiful lyrics. in the latter albums, especially real gone and this one, the voice, especially in the stomps, is just the growl. he disguises the lyrics so you have less chance of catching them, and what you get is largely a growl and a stomp. a lot of the stomps are fairly similar too. for me, that gets boring quick.
now onto this album. it starts well - chicago is a decent intro track, reminiscent in theme and drive to the classic opening track "hang on st christopher", yet not as crisp, not as inventive. then "raised right men". hmm, i thought. that's "walk away". then "talking at the same time". hmm, i thought. that's "dirt in the ground". "get lost" is "kommienezuspadt" with a layer of guitar on top. as mentioned in chris power's amazon review, satisfied is blatantly "big black mariah", and "kiss me" is "blue valentines". i mean really, these are almost the same songs with different lyrics.
there are high points to the album."back in the crowd" is a lovely song, bad as me is fun, if a little tom by numbers. satisfied has a great line up (les on bass, marc ribot on guitar, and tom singing is pretty much a superband right there, and there's fun to be had in keith playing guitar on a belated followup to not getting any satisfaction with the stones!)
ultimately, it's great to hear tom still going for new stuff. my main complaint is there's not enough new stuff on here. tom's fans (of which i'm definitely one) rejoice that he is always looking forward, and not just going around like a lot of artists who started in the 70s, playing nostalgic greatest hits tours. the problem is this feels like a greatest hits album, except he's chosen a load of his more average songs, and then changed the lyrics. i do wonder if because it's tom waits, and his fans are so notedly rabid, that he could release anything and people will come on here and give it 5 stars (and probably give me the thumbs down). i'm a massive fan of the man, but right now i find his interviews and press releases and awards speeches far more entertaining than his music. i don't blame him for it, he's been in this business for 40 years. i have no real expectation that everything he releases should be as good as his best work. when it was put to joseph heller that he had never written anything as good as "catch 22" since, he simply replied "neither has anyone else". i'll always be grateful to tom for his phenomenal body of work, and will always buy his albums whenever he has the good grace to deliver us another slice of tom, but this will be on the shelf a lot more than it's in the player.
having said all that, god bless tom waits. :)