When it comes to the rather expansive catalog of Tom Waits, there tends to be two flagship albums in the running for title of the idiosyncratic songwriter’s best work. There’s Rain Dogs from 1985, a record close to the hearts of fans and critics alike, and then there is 1992’s Bone Machine, a different beast altogether, the one you don’t dare trifle with until you’re good and ready. Rain Dogs is the one longtime fans use to introduce Waits to the uninitiated, it being a sampler of sorts showcasing every one of his various personas and being experimental but not too jarring. Bone Machine, though, is the one fans keep hidden amongst themselves, a secret treasure only the devout are privy to and the seasoned are worthy of.
Simply put, Bone Machine is not for the faint of heart. Even by Waits standards, it is a difficult listen, with its lyrical fixation on the macabre and its unhinged sonic palette. Yet because of this (rather than in spite of) it is one that many see as Waits’ most fully realized work, one that if you as the listener overcome the challenge of confronting the album and in the process absorb all it has to offer, you come out the other side all the more grateful for having made the journey.
Released in 1992, the record arrived on the heels of Waits’s reinvention trilogy of Swordfishtrombones, Rain Dogs, and Franks Wild Years. As drastic a left turn as those records were in relation to Waits’ previous seven albums, Bone Machine likewise heralded a new change for the esoteric songsmith. Despite the conscious craziness of the preceding three albums, it’s hard to imagine even the most ardent of Waits fans being prepared for what Bone Machine had in store. Where those records were quirky, Bone Machine is outright terrifying. The mischievous imp and sympathetic storyteller Waits occupied in the Swordfish et al. stretch of records is replaced here by an ogre with vengeance on his mind and a demented prophet with plague in his hand. While Waits’s netherworld was previously peopled by sentimental hookers, circus freaks, forgotten soldiers, abandoned Australian bars, lovelorn drunkards, bitters, and blue ruin, Bone Machine offered a realm occupied by brimstone-spewing demons, withering bluesmen, lynch mob justice, politicians gorging on blood and rapine, suicidal seafarers, and small town murder. Just take a look at the striking cover art and you’ll get an idea of what you’re in for — a blurry, devil-horned and goggle-eyed Waits howling into the abyss consuming him in turn.
The work is essentially a concept album, its running theme a meditation on death. Despite its prodigious 16-song tracklist, nearly each cut touches on various aspects of mortality. The end of the world, the futility of life itself, the role of religion in deceiving followers into thinking life has innate purpose, the dread of aging into a wasted existence, wanton murder, botched suicide—they’re all here. And supporting such life-affirming lyrical concerns is Waits’ merging of primitive blues with the avant-garde. Come to think of it, the title itself seems to reflect the innate dichotomy prevalent throughout the work, that of the organic reduced to its bare essentials and colliding with the utilitarian and artificial. Minimalistic guitar strumming alternates with the hammering clang of trashcan drums, blaring saxophones trade off with dusty piano chords, and then there are such odds-and-ends like a Chamberlin — an ancestor of the synthesizer — and some instrument Waits designed himself and appropriately dubbed “the conundrum”. The album’s apocalyptic atmosphere is cemented by its distinctive production, having been recorded in a studio’s storage room, thereby imbuing the songs with aural aura their lyrics demand.
(Oddly enough, ever since Swordfishtrombones, Waits has crafted his albums in trilogy formats. Bone Machine is the first installment in what I consider his “apocalypse trilogy”, the record depicting the violent collapse of society, with its 1999’s successor Mule Variations being the scattered folk songs of the post-apocalypse, and the finale, 2004’s Real Gone, serving as the final dispatches of those left behind, fighting tooth and nail for survival in a harsh world that no longer has use for them. This trilogy overlapped with the release of Waits’s trio of soundtracks for German plays — The Black Rider, Blood Money, and Alice.)
Anyway, enough with this preamble ramble. Onto the songs . . .
Waits sets the tone for the album’s tour through hell right off the bat with opener “Earth Died Screaming”. The song is an omen, a road sign cautioning listeners that this is their last chance to turn back. Hyperbole be damned, the song is the soundtrack to Armageddon, the visions of John the Revelator put to tape.
From the outset, the click-clack rattle of hollow bones — actually sticks whacked against things, but we’ll maintain the illusion — establishes a queasy rhythm and erects the scaffolding the song is built upon. Like a seasick soothsayer, Waits chimes in with his doomsday poetry — “The monkey’s on the ladder / The devil shovels coal / With crows as big as airplanes / The lion has three heads / And someone will eat / The skin that he sheds”. Without warning, his strangled whisper erupts into a booming mantra of the title, Primus’ Les Claypool coming in with a bass that undulates from the muck like Leviathan’s tail.
And yet, there is a touch of dark romance in the lyrics, the narrator ending his blustering chorus with the caveat that while the earth was screaming to its death, he was too busy dreaming of his love to notice. Or, could it be, the planetary death is the price to be paid for the narrator’s unrequited love? Is this narrator, forsaken by heaven and banned from hell, the one causing the end of days? One could perceive the song as a touching love song, the sentiment being that despite the death that rains down in droves, the speaker’s only concern is his significant other (touching, right?). The more interesting — and seemingly more legitimate — interpretation based on Waits’ delivery of the lyrics is that the narrator is indeed the one sounding the trumpets and signaling the final curtain call. “The great day of wrath has come / And here’s mud in your big red eye / The poker’s in the fire / And the locusts take the sky”, Waits intones in the final verse before switching from a brimstone-spewing preacher to the unchained devil in the chorus: “And the earth died screaming / While I lay dreaming / Dreaming of yooooouuu”, he holds out in a screeching falsetto. The Chamberlin arrives from the grime as the bone clatter and Waits’s voice sink into it, its notes composing a funeral dirge serving to send off the world in its dying whimper.
Biblical imagery, a call-and-response nature to the verse-chorus dialogue, simple percussion — the song is essentially the ugly twin of field hollers prevalent among Southern slaves. The field holler itself was an evolved version of African songs, thereby borne of the oldest forms of music in the human lexicon. With this in mind, the song serves to transplant the listener to a whole different place and time. You can practically see the slaves, or maybe a prison chain gang on work detail, singing this in unison as they toil, the unforgiving Alabama sun beating down on their brows, the smell of sweat filling the air.
There is a crucial difference between the traditional field holler and “Earth Died Screaming”, though. Whereas the historical hollers were intended to inspire hope and salvation in the slaves, and console them with the idea that divine justice would one day be meted out to their oppressors, there is no glimmer of optimism in “Earth Died Screaming”. The message here is entirely inverted. The entity bringing about the end of the world here is not discriminating, is not saving any of the devout; there is no justice to speak of, just destruction. By so directly referencing such a historical musical form, Waits sets the paradigm of bastardized blues and folk music that runs throughout the entire album.