Thus, let’s dig into this era of Waits’ music with ten tracks, ranked in order, that every listener owes it to themselves to spend some time with.
# 10 – ‘I Don’t Wanna Grow Up’ – ‘Bone Machine’ – 1992
‘Bone Machine’ was Tom Waits’ first expedition into the 1990s, and he was heavy acclaimed for it. The album won a Grammy, involved the likes of Keith Richards and Les Claypool, and concreted a gritty, aggressive style that Waits would become increasingly known for moving forward. ‘I Don’t Wanna Grow Up’ is one of the more accessible tracks of the sixteen on the album, but that doesn’t it isn’t just simply delightful.
‘I Don’t Wanna Grow Up’ is so sonically simplistic. Waits bangs on toyish-sounding acoustic guitar while a distorted electric guitar plays along and an upright bass plods away methodically. The three instruments together are so quintessentially Tom Waits: simple and raw, yet seemingly complex and daunting.
The track, written from the perspective of an adolescent Tom Waits, expresses fear of the mundane: getting loans, going to work and combing your hair, and so on. It’s basically a Peter Pan-like mentality, albeit with much darker philosophical musings about death and alcoholism.
# 9 – ‘Just The Right Bullets’ ‘The Black Rider’ – 1993’
‘The Black Rider’ quickly followed ‘Bone Machine,’ offering a stark contrast to its predecessor. At times, ‘Bone Machine’ sounds like it was recorded over walkie-talkies, but that’s also some of its gritty charm. ‘The Black Rider,’ however, is a bit more sharp and level. It’s a tad less erratic. It’s actually a collection of music Waits wrote for a stage production of the same name, which Williams Burroughs penned the book for.
The subject-matter of ‘The Black Rider’ flirts with lots of folklore, which makes sense, given its basis is a German opera from 1821. The fourth track on the album, ‘Just The Right Bullets,’ is one of the absolute finest tracks on the record. It’s a concoction that brings together everything fantastic about the album that houses it: it’s heavily theatrical, very poetic and abstract, and its composition is perfect for the stage.
# 8 – ‘What’s He Building In There’ – ‘Mule Variations’ – 1999
‘Mule Variations’ closed out the decade for Waits with similar success to the way he entered it, with another Grammy for his bookshelf. The record is rightly lauded, because it’s arguably Waits’ finest album since 1985’s ‘Rain Dogs.’ It’s also surprisingly accessible and well-recorded – two qualities neither of his previous 90s records shared both of. It’s just as long as ‘Bone Machine,’ however, clocking in again at sixteen tracks.
‘What’s He Building In There,’ is a bit of an intermission in the middle of the record, given it’s entirely spoken word. It’s important to emphasize, however, that it’s just as important as any other part of Waits’ repertoire. At the end of the day, he is a poet. Just like Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, or the like, his songs will be remembered for their stunning poetic power. ‘What’s He Building In There’ is a fascinating exercise through Waits’ prowess of the artform.
The track is a sonic tapestry, as Waits’ tale of a creepy neighbor working in his garage late at night is accompanied by clatters, bangs, and other eerie sound effects. Lyrically, Waits embodies a nosy neighbor watching someone’s house with intrigue. “What’s he building in there?” Waits ponders as he conjures imagery of potentially dark events unfolding behind the door. It’s surely not a playhouse for children, or anything innocent. It’s a mysterious track, but an excellent poem that perfectly denotes the halfway point of ‘Mule Variations.’
# 7 – ‘The Earth Died Screaming’ – ‘Bone Machine’ – 1992
‘The Earth Died Screaming’ is the opener to ‘Bone Machine,’ and it’s a track that’s been covered several times since its release due to its lasting power. It’s downright bone-chilling, and its erratic presentation only contributes to the unease Waits crafts. That unease, however, is an excellent precedent for the record. It lets the listener know right off the bat that Waits has shifted focus drastically since his last effort, ‘Franks Wild Years.’
“Well, hell doesn’t want you, and heaven is full. Bring me some water, put it in this skull. I walk between the raindrops, I wait in the Bug House square, and the army ants, they leave nothin’ but the bones.”
The apocalyptic imagery welcomes the listener into a jaunt through Waits’ darkest, most disturbing endeavors. Of course, even before ‘The Earth Died Screaming,’ the album cover shot of Tom Waits screaming while wearing bizarre glasses over a layer of blur effect is probably also a decent indicator of the album’s tone.
# 6 – ‘Chocolate Jesus’ – ‘Mule Variations’ – 1999
For what is otherwise a pretty well-produced record, ‘Chocolate Jesus’ offers a different interpretation of Waits’ vocals on ‘Mule Variations.’ When Waits performs the song live, he has a penchant for doing so with a megaphone. The playfully provocative imagery is reminiscent of Ray Charles taking church songs like ‘I’ve Got A Savior’ and ‘It Must Be Jesus’ and turning them into ‘I Got A Woman.’
In ‘Chocolate Jesus,’ Waits foams at the mouth over Zerelda Lee’s candy store, a local establishment he occupies on Sundays to get himself his much-needed chocolate fix. It is, he explains, better than any cup of coffee or the like. There’s something deeper at the song’s core, however, as Waits opens it with an explanation of how he rarely goes to church or prays, but he knows Jesus loves him. One could argue the track is a statement against those who’d say he has to do both of those things in order to obtain that love. It’s a nonchalant gospel track doused in… well, chocolate.
# 5 – ‘Goin’ Out West’ – ‘Bone Machine’ – 1992
‘Goin’ Out West’ offers a palette of Americana cliches that’s so convincing, it revitalizes each of its cliches into magnificent new ideas. Waits embarks on a high speed chase, brags about being on parole, knowing karate, and understanding the deep intricacies of voodoo. At one point, Waits blatantly sings, “I got real scars. I got hair on my chest. I look good without a shirt.” It’s so on-the-nose, that one can’t help but fall in love with it.
Around this time in the 1990s, Bruce Springsteen released the track ‘The Ghost of Tom Joad,’ a contemporary pairing of ‘The Grapes of Wrath’ and its themes and modern society. It’s a great song, and attempts to make several poignant observations about socioeconomic American conditions. ‘Goin’ Out West’ is the screw-off counterpart to ‘Ghost of Tom Joad,’ harnessing that dust bowl imagery and infusing it with a ridiculously over the top main character.
It’s important to remember tracks like ‘Goin’ Out West’ and ‘Chocolate Jesus’ because Tom Waits doesn’t get bogged down in a pretentious view of his own artistry. For each profoundly deep track he’s released, he has an equally playful one. At times, experimental poets the likes of Waits can get too bogged down in their own ostentation. ‘Goin’ Out West’ is a reminder that that has never happened to Waits.
# 4 – ‘Jesus Gonna Be Here’ – ‘Bone Machine’ – 1992
Since ‘Chocolate Jesus’ is Tom Waits fondly toying with gospel themes, it’s worth mentioning Waits’ honest and gorgeous foray into full-fledged gospel on ‘Bone Machine.’ Not only does Waits capture traditional gospel lyricism masterfully, his vocal performance is particularly notable. Some listeners may not realize that Waits has more control over his voice than they give him credit for. He adapts his growl into different variations of itself for different performances.
‘Jesus Gonna Be Here’ has been covered by the Blind Boys of Alabama, which perhaps concretes its relevance as a quality gospel track, as the Blind Boys are the classic (and contemporary) bastion of American gospel music. Arguably, Waits’ composition is actually more well suited for a vocal outfit of multiple members – as is a lot of gospel. It speaks volumes that he holds his own on the record by performing it solo, only backed by a twangy acoustic guitar and a bass riff.
# 3 – ‘Hold On’ – ‘Mule Variations’ – 1999
‘Hold On,’ the posterchild for the sound of ‘Mule Variations,’ was co-written by Kathleen Brennan, Waits’ wife. Since their marriage the decade before, she had become increasingly more involved with his songwriting process. Unlike most wife-gone-songwriting-partner, however, Brennan actually served as a remarkably talented poetic partner and counter-balance to Waits.
On ‘Hold On,’ the two managed to capture the everyday beauty of Waits’ earlier work. It’s a companion to ‘Jersey Girl’ or ‘Ol’ 55,’ melodically taking the hand of the beholder and guiding them through a mystical American summer evening. (Oddly enough, Brennan helped pen ‘Jersey Girl,’ too.) The track is the aural version of Tom Waits driving off into the sunset, Brennan in the passenger seat. The softness of the music is absolutely haunting as well, as Waits sings about dancing in the cold and burning one’s mansion to the ground.
# 2 – ‘Lucky Day’ – ‘The Black Rider’ – 1993
‘Lucky Day’ is one of the final tracks on ‘The Black Rider,’ and quite honestly, would have been an unforgettable closer if chosen as the last song. The track is drop-dead beautiful, and skillfully combines everything that’s exceptional about Tom Waits’ music. Instrumentally, the track incorporates a marine band of sorts that backs Waits with rattling snare drums whenever he’s about to erupt into a chorus. When he’s brooding in the verses, they dance about him with sparse brass notes and musical banter.
There’s a sense of finality to the lyricism of ‘Lucky Day,’ as Waits embodies a man who is essentially ‘writing home,’ if you will, to his family and friends who are now far away. Even though times may have been better with them, he’s left his troubles behind and is moving with passion into the future. But, as he sings, he’ll surely “be back some lucky day.”
Cranking ‘Lucky Day’ on the stereo gives the listener the inherent reaction of reaching for a lighter to wave in the air. It’s anthemic, oddly relatable, and wholly authentic. ‘Lucky Day’ is bittersweet as well, leaving the past as ambiguous as the future. It’s a deeply moving song, and one of Waits’ best.
# 1 – ‘Come On Up To The House’ – ‘Mule Variations’ – 1999
The superb ‘Mule Variations’ closes with one of Waits’ most sublime, unforgettable tunes – a track entitled ‘Come On Up To The House.’ As a vocalist, he stretches himself in a particularly jarring direction with some of the most intense rasping of his career. In fact, it’s quite unlike anything else on ‘Mule Variations.’ As a lyricist, Waits moves further into his affinity for gospel, and to exquisite effect.
“The world is not my home; I’m just passing through,” Waits sings as he pounds on a grand piano that’s backed by a thick, but simple percussion section. A good gospel track must do one thing: it must make everybody feel like it was written specifically for them. ‘Come On Up To The House’ is a deeply personal listening experience that confronts self-doubt, faith, life’s turmoil, and so much more. Waits isn’t singing to you, he’s singing about you – at least, that’s how he makes you feel. That’s true magic. ‘Come On Up To The House’ is a masterpiece of epic proportions, but even in its grandeur, it feels soft-spoken and intimate. Thus, it’s undeniably one of Tom Waits’ most memorable tracks.
“All your crying don’t do no good. Come on up to the house. Come down off the cross; we could use the wood. Come on up to the house… There’s no light in the tunnel, no irons in the fire. Come on up to the house. And you’re singin’ lead soprano in a junkman’s choir. You gotta’ come on up the house.”