The Earth Died Screaming: Bone Machine Turns 30

Looking back on Tom Waits’s most visceral sack of gold

Tom Waits on the cover of the 1992 promo for Bone Machine (Image: Discogs)

Once you’ve brought your dreams to life, it’s time to start working on your nightmares.

Tom Waits spent a sizable chunk of the ‘80s building a strange, unforgettable universe of surreal stories and outlandish characters on what would become known as his Frank’s Wild Years Trilogy. On 1983’s Swordfishtrombones, 1985’s Rain Dogs, and 1987’s Frank’s Wild Years, he redefined what was possible both under the rock umbrella and within the singer/songwriter realm. On 1992’s Bone Machine, Waits brought it all crashing to the ground and gleefully danced amid the wreckage.

For his first album of the ‘90s, Waits blew the trilogy’s dizzying amalgam of blues, Salvation Army Band brass, polka, country, Brecht/Weill, surf rock, cool jazz, cartoon music, and Spaghetti Western soundtracks into a million pieces and let the wind carry them away. Then he refashioned himself as some kind of prehistoric town crier, slamming dinosaur bones against boulders and wailing his stories of strange goings-on in a shifting array of voices, from the creepy conspirator to the full-tilt lunatic.

Tom Waits Bone Machine, Island Records 1992

In retrospect, it couldn’t have been any other way. For Waits, predictability was a mortal sin. So, after several years of blowing minds and paving new musical pathways with his trilogy, he had to leave it all behind and start over, in a manner not dissimilar to Neil Young’s legendarily gritty, off-piste “ditch trilogy.” 

Though Waits has a bunch of heavy-duty guests here, including Les Claypool of Primus, he handles most of the heavy lifting himself. With the exception of stalwart Larry Taylor providing the bulk of the bass, most of the musicians only appear on a track or two. That’s not because Waits suddenly developed some Prince-like multi-instrumental virtuosity (though he was always a serviceable guitarist and pianist). It’s because a lot of the album really is based around him just banging the sweet beejeezus out of whatever was within whacking distance. Waits doesn’t abandon his facility with old-school song structures, but some of Bone Machine’s best moments are ones where he’s wailing madly above a primal, monomaniacal percussive clatter.

When you start your album off with the apocalypse, you run the risk of painting yourself into a corner pretty quickly. Not Waits. He sounds positively giddy to be growling out a snapshot of the end times on opening track “Earth Died Screaming” atop what could believably be marimba mallets skittering across a skeleton’s ribcage.

Waits goes all in on macabre imagery for the graveyard groan of the deliciously morbid “Dirt in the Ground,” with old pal Ralph Carney overdubbing some spooky horns. “All Stripped Down” and “Jesus Gonna Be Here” are minimalist gospel blues tunes of the “sinners, get ready” variety, with Waits as the half-crazed, decrepit bluesman moaning along to the riffs of what sounds like a quickly disintegrating rubber band. 

“The Ocean Doesn’t Want Me,” a spoken-word account of contemplating a watery suicide, is too playful to be scary, seeming to serve mostly as a nod to the cult-classic “word jazz” work of one of Waits’s heroes, Ken Nordine. “In the Colosseum” is an orgy of destruction and decadence that could either be a sociopolitical commentary on the sorry state of our world or simply a chance for Waits to unleash his id’s most uncomfortable urges (or both). 

 

VIDEO: Tom Waits “I Don’t Wanna Grow Up”

The spare, sinister “Murder in the Red Barn” could almost be an outtake from Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music if Waits’s black-humored murder-centric lyrics weren’t so artfully arrayed. But for all of his demonic inclinations, Waits has always had a soft side for a tender, unironic ballad, and he slips a few in on Bone Machine. They provide the perfect palate cleanser amid all the derangement.

Maybe the most touching of these is “Whistle Down the Wind.” With Los Lobos frontman David Hidalgo adding fiddle and accordion, it’s a serenade for a soul in conflict with itself, dedicated to Waits’s late songwriter friend Tom Jans. The album closes out with the greasy but open-hearted “That Feel,” a soulful slice of transcendence with guest guitar and vocals from Keith Richards, who is either Waits’s soul brother or spirit animal.

Waits kept on making great records after Bone Machine, but he never let it all hang out with such thrilling abandon before or since. Be advised that your soul may need a shower after listening.

 

 

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