Death's Head Lullabies: Tom Waits - "Who Are You"

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.

Tom Waits

Bone Machine

Label: Island
US Release Date: 1992-09-08
UK Release Date: 1992-09-07
Official website

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.

Previous Entries

* "Introduction / Earth Died Screaming"

* "Dirt in the Ground"

* "Such a Scream"

* "All Stripped Down"

The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

Keep reading... Show less

Electronic music is one of the broadest-reaching genres by design, and 2017 highlights that as well as any other year on record. These are the 20 best albums.

20. Vitalic - Voyager (Citizen)

Pascal Arbez-Nicolas (a.k.a. Vitalic) made waves in the French Touch electro-house scene with his 2005 debut, OK Cowboy, which had a hard-hitting maximalist sound, but several albums later, Voyager finds him launching into realms beyond at his own speed. The quirky, wallflower vocals and guitar snippets employed throughout Voyager drop a funk that brings to mind WhoMadeWho or Matthew Dear if they had disco-pop injected between their toes. "Levitation" is as pure a slice of dance floor motivation as theoretically possible, a sci-fi gunfight with a cracking house beat sure to please his oldest fans, yet the album-as-form is equally effective in its more contemplative moments, like when Miss Kitten's vocals bring an ethereal dispassion to "Hans Is Driving" to balance out its somber vocoder or the heartfelt cover of "Don't Leave Me Now" by Supertramp. Voyager may infect you with a futuristic form of Saturday Night Fever, but afterwards, it gives you a hearty dose of aural acetaminophen to break it. - Alan Ranta

Keep reading... Show less

Hitchcock, 'Psycho', and '78/52: Hitchcock's Shower Scene'

Alfred Hitchock and Janet Leigh on the set of Psycho (courtesy of Dogwoof)

"... [Psycho] broke every taboo you could possibly think of, it reinvented the language of film and revolutionised what you could do with a story on a very precise level. It also fundamentally and profoundly changed the ritual of movie going," says 78/52 director, Alexandre O. Philippe.

The title of Alexandre O. Philippe's 78/52: Hitchcock's Shower Scene (2017) denotes the 78 set-ups and the 52 cuts across a full week of shooting for Psycho's (1960) famous shower scene. Known for The People vs. George Lucas (2010), The Life and Times of Paul the Psychic Octopus (2012) and Doc of the Dead (2014), Philippe's exploration of a singular moment is a conversational one, featuring interviews with Walter Murch, Peter Bogdanovich, Guillermo del Toro, Jamie Lee Curtis, Osgood Perkins, Danny Elfman, Eli Roth, Elijah Wood, Bret Easton Ellis, Karyn Kusama, Neil Marshall, Richard Stanley and Marli Renfro, body double for Janet Leigh.

Keep reading... Show less

Mary Poppins, Mrs. Gamp, Egyptian deities, a Japanese umbrella spirit, and a supporting cast of hundreds of brollies fill Marion Rankine's lively history.

"What can go up a chimney down but can't go down a chimney up?" Marion Rankine begins her wide-ranging survey of the umbrella and its significance with this riddle. It nicely establishes her theme: just as umbrellas undergo, in the everyday use of them, a transformation, so too looking at this familiar, even forgettable object from multiple perspectives transforms our view of it.

Keep reading... Show less

Those who regard the reclusive Argerich as one of the world's two or three greatest living pianists—classical or otherwise—would not have left the concert hall disillusioned.

In a staid city like Washington, D.C., too many concert programs still stick to the basics. An endless litany of Rachmaninoff and Tchaikovsky concerti clog the schedules and parades of overeager virtuosi seem unwilling to vary their repertoire for blasé D.C. concertgoers. But occasionally you encounter a concert that refreshes your perspective of the familiar. The works presented at The Kennedy Center on 25 October 2017 might be stalwarts of 20th century repertoire, but guest conductor Antonio Pappano, leading the Orchestra dell'Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia, reminded us how galvanizing the canonical can still be. Though grandiose executions of Respighi's The Fountains of Rome and The Pines of Rome were the main event, the sold-out crowd gathered to see Martha Argerich perform one of her showpieces, Prokofiev's Third Piano Concerto. Those who regard the reclusive Argerich as one of the world's two or three greatest living pianists—classical or otherwise—would not have left the concert hall disillusioned.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.