Top positive review
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If there's one thing you can't lose, it's that feel.
on 31 January 2006
Bone Machine, by Tom Waits, is an album as eerie, desolate, shambolic and claustrophobic as its title might suggest. Really, there is no adequate way of describing the songs, sound, style or production, without falling back on descriptions like rustic, desolate, gothic, bleak, worn, weary, rusted and disturbed, with Waits stripping away any lingering sense of the lounge-jazz veneer that permeated through the slumbering melancholy of his pre-Swordfishtrombones output, to instead, create something that is much more discomforting and menacing, in terms of sound and presentation. The songs are often quite minimal, featuring piano, guitars and a smattering of horns and solo strings, and that constant percussion, from the boners on the opening track, to the fierce clatter and cacophony of something like All Stripped Down, in which the percussions sounds like anything and everything from drum sticks on biscuit tins and heavy metal doors being violently slammed shut.
Lyrically, the album is as uncomfortable as the music and production, with the first song adopting the frantic perspective of cornball 50's sci-fi with the title 'Earth Died Screaming', to subsequent tracks like Dirt in the Ground, The Ocean Doesn't Want Me, Murder in the Red Barn and I Don't Wanna Grow Up, which seem to have an unhealthy preoccupation with old age, failure, death, bereavement, murder and decay. The album switches between loud, vibrant, carnivalesque tracks with a fuller band performance and robust, theatrical vocals from Waits, and more restrained numbers, which recall the late night minimalist misery of albums like Closing Time and Small Change. The reason that the whole thing hangs together so well, regardless of tempo changes or the odd stylist anachronism, is through the deft mixing and sequencing of the album, and through Waits' peerless production. The whole record sounds gargled and muffled, as if playing through an old transistor radio, whilst certain sources have claimed that the album was recorded in an old converted storage space... which is certainly apparent from the muffled claustrophobia of songs like Whistle Down the Wind, and the fantastic closing track, That Feel.
Waits's vocal delivery is quite often a major part of the song's style and atmosphere, moving further and further away from the crooning lounge style of his earlier work and often relying heavily on lower-register growls, sinister whispers, screaming, carnival-like announcements, and menacing spoken-word laments. The vocals compliment the music and the lyrical subject matter perfectly, capturing the surreal and slightly menacing feeling of backwoods Americana and lo-fi abandon that runs throughout these sixteen tracks. As the other reviewers have mentioned, there is no real standout, with the whole album feeling complete... moving from the more surreal and abrasive tracks like The Earth Died Screaming, Jesus Gonna be Here and In the Colosseum, to the wistful downers Dirt in the Ground, Who Are You This Time? and Whistle Down the Wind (ok, I lied, if I had to choose one standout from this album, then that would be it!!). Even the shorter tracks, which seem to be there only to link the longer songs (Such a Scream, Black Wings and Let Me Get Up On It) have a great atmosphere that contributes to the overall feeling that the album creates.
Bone Machine is one of Tom Waits' many musical peaks, offering a grungy and often quite grim record that looks at a number of bleakly beautiful subjects and runs them through this bizarre musical filter, which ends up splicing genres as disparate as backwoods blues, piano jazz, college rock and Weimar influenced cabaret!! The songs hang together perfectly, and despite the bleak subject matter and the buzzing dissonance of the overall sound and instrumentation, it never becomes a chore to sit through. Instead, it represents Waits at his strongest, crafting deep and meaningful lyrics that offer heart and emotion without sacrificing his trademark wit and wordplay, combined with a number of dazzling arrangements and performances from everyone involved. Bone Machine is an impeccable album, something that could easily be considered a modern masterpiece, and one to file away with Rain Dogs, Small Change, Blood Money and Alice as Waits at his absolute best.