1973: The year Tom Waits released his first album. Since then, the common thread through his albums has been the piano, whether his early barroom crooning or his post-1983 freaky blues work about apocalyptic carnivals. On every album, Waits plays at least some piano. But on his latest release, Real Gone, he doesn't touch a single ivory key.
This is the first large change Waits has made since drastically altering his sound on Swordfishtrombones. In place of the staple piano, Real Gone introduces turntables and a whole lot of vocal percussion to the Waitsian experience. It makes a considerable impact on the album. Half, if not more of the album, is the brilliant seediness we have come to expect from Waits, while the other half often sounds somewhat lacking.
Real Gone opens with the stumbling "Top of the Hill," Waits's vocals buried at the bottom of the mix. The next song, however, "Hoist That Rag" is a wonderful shamble through found sounds and Waits gnarled delivery. The magic of this song is soon lost to the slow moving and far too long "Sins of my Father." Real Gone continues through this hit-and-miss cycle for much of its remainder--"Don't Go Into that Barn" is some of the most haunting bits of storytelling Waits has ever created, while the spoken word "Circus" is his most boring.
This is in no way suggesting Real Gone is a bad album. It certainly is not, but it also is not among Waits's best. After all, the man did release his first album in 1973, we should have witnessed a considerable decline in quality years ago. Still able to release something as good as Real Gone at the age of 55 and have it called mediocre is just downright scary.