The first sound you hear when you toss Real Gone in the CD player and hit the play button is turntable scratching; it throws you off instantly, even though it probably shouldn't. After all, why should any sort of noise surprise you when you're listening to a Tom Waits album? These days, noise is the point, isn't it?
The answer to that rhetorical question is yes. And no. Opener "Top of the Hill" serves as a litmus test of sorts; it's, by far, the most cacophonic song on the album.
Yes, there's a ton of clanging and bashing, unnerving and disorienting dissonance, and insistence on always playing the wrong sound at the right time--it's engrossingly ugly and destructively elegant. The no comes later in the album, if you make it that far.
It takes a few songs to realize why this album sounds inherently different from any other of Waits' albums: There is no piano.
The first half of Waits' career was, of course, based around piano, and so his, well, everything, is inextricably linked to hammers hitting resonating strings, even once he first got weird on Swordfishtrombones, a full 21 years ago. And weird he's remained, issuing variations on a theme since. Just as Charles Bukowski used simple language to slice open the underbelly of existence and somehow render it beautiful, the second half of Waits' career has been somewhat of a sonic equivalent: scraping challengingly disturbing elements together and spewing it back out as a sort of twisted beauty.
Real Gone makes concessions to no one, as usual. Once the impenetrable is penetrated and accepted, the juicy fruits reveal themselves: The subdued "How's It Gonna End" comes as a sensible relief after the disorienting first five tracks; "Dead and Lovely" is a murder ballad that postulates, "Never marry for love"; and "Day After Tomorrow" is a beautiful and poignant letter home from a soldier at war, written on his 21st birthday. It's a difficult album, but it's worth the effort.