The Epitaph Years: last season of Tom Waits’ musical career

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Seven years after Bone Machine (1992), the last release for Island Records before the long break and the transition to the new record company, the first album for Anti- / Epitaph was Mule Variations (1999), in which some historical collaborators were joined by bluesmen Charlie Musselwhite and John Hammond, multi-instrumentalist Smokey Horme and DJ M. Mark “The III Media” Reitman.

The resulting record is an admirable synthesis between the Tom of the ballads from the years with Asylum and the avant-garde Waits from the Island period. For once, it was not just the critics who praised its work, it was also the American public that appreciated it, since Mule Variations debuted at number 30 on the Billboard chart (the highest position ever reached by Waits in his career) and sold a million copies, also winning the Grammy for Contemporary Folk’s best album.

Tom Waits - "Hold On" (ANTI-)

On the following year, after collaborating once more time with Robert Wilson by writing songs for the play Woyzeck, Waits decided to arrange both what he just produced for the latter and the material he had composed seven years earlier for the musical Alice in two new records, which were simultaneously released in 2002: Blood Money and Alice. In these albums, he almost completely eliminated guitars, just as nine years earlier he had muted the sound of the saxophone from Swordfishtrombones. Unlike that one, though, Alice has a classic flair, dreamlike, thanks to the wise mix of Brechtian atmospheres, traditional jazz and chamber music, while the lyrics investigate the Obsessive and the Monstrous. Blood Money, on the other hand, sounds darker and acid, and delves into tonal experimentation by adopting a massive use of percussion and performing torn vocals. This menacing ensemble is, however, unexpectedly diluted by some very romantic ballads, such as ‘Coney Island Baby’ and ‘All the World is Green’. Both albums did well on the sales charts, whereas more and more artists included Waits songs in their repertoire, who for his part kept on producing music for movies, for successful television series and for other musicians, such as the revived Solomon Burke.

Tom went on to release a new studio album in 2004: Real Gone, which was ranked at 28th place in the Billboard charts, improving the record held by Mule VariationsReal Gone saw Waits’ eldest son, Casey, debut in professional music: in addition to playing drums and percussion, Casey brought a dowry of a Hip-hop feeling still unheard in his Dad’s records. Marc Ribot’s guitar was in, and the whole album, which was entirely written and produced by Tom with his wife Kathleen, sounds electric and vibrant, also because of Waits’ decision to exclude the piano, his instrument of choice, from the record. This does not mean that ballads of excruciating beauty like ‘Trampled Rose’ couldn’t find their place in the album.

Tom Waits - "Trampled Rose" (Live on The Orphans Tour, 2006)

Another novelty were the themes of the lyrics, which for the first time were political and expressed concern about the warmongering policies of the President of the United States.

What is so far the third season of Tom Waits’ musical path had in store two other goodies: the triple CD Orphans (2006), which collects in three records that can also be sold separately the rock-blues (Brawlers), the ballads (Bawlers), and the experimental pieces (Bastards) that for one reason or another had found no place in Tom’s official production. And the album Bad as Me (2011), until now the last album released by Waits, a work that gives space to the voice and guitar of Keith Richards, who already appeared  both in Rain Dogs and Bone Machine; it’s an album that also sees among the guests Flea on bass, while Marc Ribot and Casey Waits respectively fill once again the roles of guitarist and drummer of the band.

Bad as Me does not present any particular news with respect to records such as Mule Variations or Real Gone, however it is highly vauable for the particular care with which the pieces are selected, arranged and produced. There are no fillers and the balance between rock-blues, ballads and experimentation is perfect, making the album the most accessible of the last thirty years of Tom’s production.

Nine years after his last studio album, you are eager to listen to a new production by one of the most important and brilliant artists in the music world, who has been active since five decades and, like David Bowie, has been capable of continually renewing himself while remaining unmistakable. “I’m incapable of repeating myself, … I’m constantly forced to change things”. Are we on the eve of a fourth season?

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