Death's Head Lullabies: Tom Waits - "That Feel"

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What better way is there to end a concept album about death than with a song that spits in Death’s face?

Tom Waits

Bone Machine

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

The morning after: waking up in the same clothes you slept in, your aching head on the pillow of some foreign bed, self-awareness dawning on you and the clarity that comes with those first few moments of consciousness. Your brain feels like a sick oyster shrinking in the shell of your skull; you know you’ve been in this position far too many times and you’re genuinely baffled as to why you persist on winding up in it. This scenario is the sound captured by “That Feel”, the hangover rising up from within and you being resigned to claim it almost as a badge of honor.

As far as album closers go, they don’t come more effective (and affecting) than “That Feel”. Opening with a languid guitar sounding like a drunkard rolling out of bed and a dirge-like drum rattle, the song breaks in the way of sunlight creeping through the slots of a boarded up window. The ramshackle ferocity dominating Bone Machine is largely absent here, Tom Waits toning it down and creating the sensation of one awakening from the night terrors of the previous songs. You might be lucid, but the impact of that ordeal is not going to leave you; the feeling that the woes of life have imparted on you will remain, and will define you for the time you have left. “There’s one thing you can’t lose / It’s that feel”, Waits sings, sluggishly trying to assert some sobriety, “Your pants, your shirt, your shoes / But not that feel”. He doesn’t define what “that feel” is, for there’s no need to do so; you either have that feel or you don’t, and those that don’t, well, they will eventually.

Those who get it, though, recognize “that feel” is the pain innate to the human condition, the “absurdity of being human”, as Charles Bukowski would refer to it. As individual identities are effectively composed of their memories and their reactions to experiences, the resulting feeling only grows with age, and it’s something that cannot be shaken. Everything else, every tangible object, amounts to decorations that can be forfeited or lost, but that feel isn’t leaving you, for it, in essence, is you. Waits communicates this fatalism with more fantastically evocative imagery, making the existential visual, tangible even: “You can pawn your watch and chain / But not that feel / It always comes and finds you / It will always hear you cry / I cross my wooden leg / And I swear on my glass eye / It will never leave you high and dry / Never leave you loose / It’s harder to get rid of than tattoos”.

As the song builds momentum, it ceases to be the lone ruminations of an old wayfaring stranger. With each verse, the instrumentation increases, the sound becoming grander and fuller with more guitars and additional percussion. Come the third verse, the original rock ‘n’ roll survivor, Keith Richards, joins the fray, backing Waits’ voice with his own high crone’s wail. Richards’ presence shifts the song from one man’s reflections to a bonfire sing-along, layers of other voices becoming a hobo’s choir. In the context of the album’s apocalyptic theme, this could be a new folk song recited by a group of survivors, cooking some cockroaches for supper over an open trashcan flame, lauding their own resilience in the arid desert that surrounds them.

This notion of holding onto the sorrow that makes you and defying death’s desire to take it, coupled with the more subdued music, may make “That Feel” seem an odd choice as the closer. In point of fact, though, such a sentiment is the perfect way to wrap Bone Machine. Death is all around and will take you eventually, but until that moment arrives, savor what feeling you have, for it is the mark of existence. Lament the pain of being if you want, but keep in mind, one day you’ll likely be wishing for just five more minutes of life. That feel doesn’t stain or mar life; it is life, so embrace it. What better way is there to end an album about death than with a song that spits in Death’s face, letting him know he’ll have his day, but until then, you’re going to tease him by pushing every boundary and taxing every limit?

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