Tom Waits’ long career has been marked by an aversion to explicitly political music. Dim light bulbs and graveyards, rifles that ring out at dawn, mules and very tall men, old dogs, old people, Oldsmobiles — all have been celebrated in Waits’ songs. Never, though, has the eccentric and impossibly rugged-voiced singer waded into unabashed political commentary.
Which is why it’s stunning to realize that Waits’ new record, Real Gone, contains what is surely (for my money, at least) the most essential song inspired by the war in Iraq. Even that may be selling it short. “Day After Tomorrow” is not the best anti-war song ever written (that honor, again, for my money, goes to Bob Dylan’s “Masters of War”) but if I’m assembling a double album of political-war songs, Waits’ entry definitely makes the cut. (The song also appears on the Barsuk Records recently released Future Soundtrack for America.)
A sort of audio journal told from the perspective of a soldier whose tour in Iraq is coming to a close, “Tomorrow” opens with the unnamed narrator getting some mail from home. He’s a Midwestern kid — raised, he tells the listener, in northern Illinois — and has managed to hold on to some of his boyish naïvete. “I still believe that there’s gold/At the end of the world,” sings Waits as he begins to sketch his character. The soldier’s spirits are buoyed by the knowledge that he’ll soon be boarding a plane; he’s due to arrive in America in just a couple days.
Accompanied by only a pair of slow guitars, Waits continues: The song’s young enlistee is fed up with the drudgeries and dangers of wartime service. He misses cleaning up the yard in autumn and clearing snow from the driveway. He longs for his girlfriend.
Waits will be 55 in December and has been making largely uncategorizable records for 30 years. Yet his uncanny empathy for his protagonist makes it feel as if the singer himself had spent a year in Baghdad. That he understands the young man’s provincial longings, his fears, his confusion and his anger becomes clearer with every line.
With steely calm, the young soldier notes that he and his peers have been fed “lies” since the start of the war, that the violence that surrounds him is deeply unnerving. Though we’re not told his chief reason for joining the service, whatever illusions he might have possessed have long since been shattered: “I’m not fighting for justice/I’m not fighting for freedom/I am fighting for my life and/Another day in the world here.”
Waits’ lyrics are stark and moving, but it is the way he delivers them that makes this such a powerful song. Betraying the sort of inner turmoil that reflects a standoff between resignation and idealism, Waits works his way patiently through the six-plus-minute song. He has an instinctive sense that informs his decision to linger on certain words while quickly dispatching with others. Near the very end Waits tells us that his young solider is celebrating a birthday, alone on the other side of the world. (I won’t quote the last four lines; they are perfect and should be heard, not read.) For all of his strengths, Waits every so often has written vaguely maudlin lyrics. None of that is present here.
Writing a song from the perspective of a soldier or a bystander caught in a war is not unique; it’s been done by everyone from Billy Bragg to Metallica to, most recently, Steve Earle. But it’s hard to imagine a song that does so more effectively, more sympathetically, than “Tomorrow.”
A mix of hollers, unusual sounds, idiosyncratic lyrics and thunderous percussion, the rest of Real Gone confirms that Waits is as sonically creative as ever. And “Tomorrow” reveals him to be a great political songwriter. Who knew?