Musical Apocalypse: Tom Waits’ Bone Machine

Angela Jones


Apocalypse derives from the Greek apocalypsis, meaning the act of uncovering, unveiling, or revelation. While the apocalyptic theme or genre continues to inform and inspire a number of different media and discourses into the twenty-first century, the representation of apocalypse within popular music remains a largely overlooked field of enquiry. Therefore in this paper I would like to discuss Tom Waits' 1992 CD, Bone Machine, as a popular musical rendition of the apocalyptic theme, in order to explore what the apocalyptic might sound like, were it to be rendered musically. To do so, I will be drawing on Jacques Derrida's essay "Of an Apocalyptic Tone Recently Adopted in Philosophy," in which he formulates an understanding of the apocalyptic as "tone": the "revelator of some unveiling in process." Like Derrida's apocalyptic tone, Bone Machine can be interpreted as registering an idea of the apocalyptic as process and movement, wherein the act of revelation is conceived as a continual, often turbulent and confusing, unveiling. This apocalyptic process is registered both through the album's production - wherein the sounds are continually being stripped back and built on to one another to form unstable, transient song structures - and through its vocal delivery - which foregrounds the way in which tone can subvert and destabilize the meaning of the lyrics. The result is an idea of apocalypse which is not simply an ending to a narrative trajectory, nor which relies on genre-specific imagery or themes, but rather which obscures as much as it reveals, always drawing attention back to itself as a revelatory gesture. Indeed, the apocalyptic tone destabilizes and undermines some of the dominant assumptions central to narrative-based understandings of apocalypse, and as such my analysis aims to foreground the ways in which Bone Machine enables an original and, at times, subversive musical perspective on what has proven to be a remarkably resilient cultural theme.

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ISSN 1749-9771

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