For more than twenty years, Tom Waits has chronicled the small wins and grotesque losses of the seedy underworld. Bone Machine, his first full-length studio album since Frank's Wild Years (1987), continues observing a world of deathly mysteries, half-baked gospel truths and secular ambitions. His drunken bluster to the fore, Waits tramples melodies with an ear for twisting clichés. The music matches Waits's hollers with plenty of upright bass, late-night piano and over-the-top percussion.
But it's Bone Machine's preoccupation with death that brings these songs to life. The album begins with "Earth Died Screaming," a surrealist nightmare ("The devil shovels coal/With crows as big as airplanes"); Waits sings in oblivion: "And the earth died screaming/While I lay dreaming of you." He follows that up with the existentialist tract "Dirt in the Ground," offering the leveling truth that "we're all gonna be just dirt in the ground." Two songs later ("All Stripped Down"), he foresees Judgment Day.
Throughout the album lonesome travelers and restless strangers battle their lives with drink, religion and the active search for somewhere better than here. "A little trouble makes it worth the going/And a little rain never hurt no one/The world is round/And so I'll go around/You must risk something that matters," Waits sings on "A Little Rain," with David Phillips's pedal steel sweeping through the background. No one needs convincing.
It's a song older than Waits himself — older than Hank Williams, older than Robert Johnson — that Waits is chasing, the simple mystery of where life goes: "I don't wanna float a broom/Fall in love and get married and then boom/How the hell did it get here so soon?/I don't wanna grow up." Albums this rich with spiritual longing prove the validity of that effort, no matter the odds.