In the midst of all the dread and horror that is Bone Machine, it might seem odd to close out the first side with “A Little Rain”, the record’s most tender moment. And yet, the placement of the song is no accident. On repeated listens, it becomes clear that it affords some relief, soothing the audience without forsaking the macabre theme of the album; it serves as the piece’s oasis among the desert of despair.
To a degree, “A Little Rain” is a by-numbers Tom Waits piano ballad, augmented by a redolent pedal steel guitar played by David Phillips, which lends it a heavy country-western feel. Waits plays an antique store piano and with the intimate production, he once again elicits the imagery of a character and setting, in this case a drunken troubadour playing in a cobweb-strewn saloon in some forgotten ghost town. The boozy way in which Waits slurs the lyrics, waxing nostalgic, drives this perception home; his character rocking on his bench, barely steadying himself as his fingers grace the keys. It’s a persona Waits spent years (and seven albums) with, yet ironically, it is on this throwback to his years with the Asylum label that he truly perfects it, giving it a sense of authenticity without melodrama.
The lyrics themselves are firmly grounded in this inebriated bard role. As Waits offers vignettes on a series of characters, you get the impression these are lives the singer has personally observed from his perch in the bar. A German dwarf, a fingerless guitarist, a homeless gravedigger, and other motley personages pass through this observer’s purview in cameos. Waits doesn’t recount their stories in linear fashion, but offers snapshots of moments in time, bleeding their experiences together like a man flipping through a photo album, the images becoming blurred. The sentimentality and at times saccharine emotion (by Bone Machine standards) again draw comparisons to Waits’ earlier work, most overtly 1976’s Small Change and the following year’s Foreign Affairs. While the drunken balladeer template ceased being so singular an identity for Waits with 1980’s Heartattack and Vine, it did rear its head more sparingly on the trio of records sandwiched between Heartattack and Bone Machine, most notably on “Time” from Rain Dogs (1985). Hell, one could even argue that “Time” is a precursor of sorts to “A Little Rain”, both songs of barstool wisdom offered up by the same character at different stages in his life.
The central question this song faces is how does it fit in with the album’s theme of mortality? After all, the song is largely comforting in its repetition that “A little rain / Never hurt no one”. The answer is that it swims against the current of the rest of the record, but by default acknowledges it in the process. The message in “A Little Rain” is to not sit idly by and let death seize you unaware, but to live and take chances. “You must risk something that matters”, Waits plainly states, “If it’s worth the going / It’s worth the ride”. The reason such a course of action isn’t taken more often is for the obvious fact that breaking out on your own is a damn scary endeavor. The song references that fear in its emotional climax, the closing stanza about a teenage runaway: “She was 15 years old / And she’d never seen the ocean / She climbed into a van / With a vagabond / And the last thing she said / Was, ‘I love you, mom’”. It’s a theme of resilience, of being willing to gamble for something better rather than settling for the security of the mundane. There will be adversities, sure, but in the end, a little rain never hurt no one. It’s an entirely appropriate outlook to wrap the first half of Bone Machine, a lullaby to soothe you before the nightmares return.