With “Who Are You”, Tom Waits scales back the world-reckoning themes of Bone Machine’s previous tracks, internalizing the despair to make one of the album’s most emotionally devastating songs. The End of Days is still raging, but here it’s doing so inside the narrator, the engine of his destruction being the woman who has left him behind.
Sounding as though it was recorded in a mausoleum, the song is built around an outlaw country guitar line that weaves back and forth with a Southern blues bass part. Amid this sparse arrangement, Waits arrives with the persona of an insomniac unable to sleep since his world crumbled. His gruff delivery is without formal structure, lacking a chorus or defined rhythm, but that only serves to amplify his torment, rendering the effect of a man so genuinely dismayed that he’s out of step with the world around him. The lone recurring lyric in the piece, stitching it together in threadbare fashion, finds Waits randomly addressing his object of (des)ire with the simple, yet acerbic, inquiry of “Who are you / Who are you this time?”
Sustained only by the piss and vinegar of his righteous wrath, Waits directs a litany of cryptic insults to the woman who left him in shambles. The majority of his grievances are ambiguous, or so esoteric to the parties involved as to be left vague to outsiders, perhaps amounting to the nonsensical ravings of a mind no longer capable of making sense. “How do your pistol and your Bible / And your sleeping pills go?” Waits asks, a line so simultaneously evocative and abstruse that it compels the listener to fill in the gaps of the relationship to formulate a context wherein it has significance.
However, Waits does drop a few direct nuggets, possibly just to ensure the song’s message (if not every line) is clear. What connects the obscure with the overt is the trenchant tone. Insults to a former lover don’t come more biting than “Are you pretending to love? / Well, I hear that it pays well”, while the apparent criticism of the woman’s materialism and greed is boiled down with “Are you still jumping out of windows / In expensive clothes?” The overwrought fashion in which Waits sings such acrimony speaks to his vacillating emotions. You can visualize his character sitting with fists clenched, unable to move on or to let go, stagnating as the swaying music behind him attempts to shuffle him along. Of course, this concept of the songsmith wrecked in the wake of his no-good woman’s callousness is one of the oldest and most frequently recurring blues tropes, so once again Waits hits on that connecting vein of blues exploration.
Bob Dylan’s influence looms heavily, both in the narrator’s accusatory, vitriolic manner of putting down the recipient of his scorn and in the surrealistic lyrics conveying his rancor. Unlike the finest of Dylan’s put-down songs, though, “Who Are You” finds a protagonist who isn’t so smug in his superiority; for all of his mean-spirited slandering of his departed woman, he is clearly using such cruelty as solace for himself, a balm he hopes will get him through his turmoil. Waits may be listing the woman’s offenses, but it is a means of distancing himself from his own complicity in the relationship’s downfall and to convince himself he is better off without her (in this sense, “Who Are You” is more akin to the confliction of Dylan’s “Most of the Time” or “Love Sick” than the vitriolic “Positively 4th Street”). It’s a sentiment anyone who has been through a bitter break-up can empathize with, despite the ambiguous lyrics. And those same people can tell you that when you spend time trying to convince yourself your ex is a vile person, you’re doing it because you’re hoping such disavowal will override how much you still care for that other person. The catch-22 is you’re trying to loathe this other person, but if you do, then the other person by definition is still dominating your thoughts. It’s that element of immersing yourself in your darkest emotions in order to inoculate your psyche of their ravages that “Who Are You” encapsulates so authentically.