The American Dream.
Long heralded as one of life’s ultimate destinations, it immediately evokes untattered images of picket fences, manicured flora, children’s laughter, and, of course, “keeping up with the Joneses” – the everlasting opportunity to peek over said flora in attempts to truly understand and out-class your neighbors.
Now, what happens when we subtract any knowledge of said Jones’ from the equation, and allow our oft-stunted imaginations to fill in the blanks? Quite simply, we get one of the strangest, most stirring offerings of the 20th century: Tom Waits’ “What’s He Building?”.
It’s April 1999, and America’s favorite gravel-throated hummingbird Tom Waits is set to release his 13th studio effort after a 6-year hiatus. Sweeping and unsettling as the propeller wash of a Blackhawk helicopter, American Musings en masse is a grotesque display of raw, poetic beauty. Released to widespread critical acclaim and a Grammy Award, Waits’ first release in 6 years is as innovative as it is familiarly haunting.
Seven tracks of classic “surrural” (Waits’ coined term for the influential role that rural life injected into the recordings) brings us to the eerily perverse “What’s He Building?”.
The answer might not be obvious, but what is evident is that more than one thing is being built here. Like the Mayans – famous for building new pyramids over older pyramids, piling blocks of meaning, structure, and relevance, the song builds (or descends) from simple, “through the peephole” neighborhood voyeurism (he’s all to himself/I think I know why/he took the down the tire swing from the pepper tree/he has no children of his own, you see) to downright certifiable paranoia (I swear I heard someone moaning low).
Despite the growingly suspicious (and baseless) claims of strange and concerning activity, Waits tables no justifications regarding the narrator’s perspectives. Every line, every “weird” observation is mere hearsay, conjecture, or the word of a (presumed) pet, Mr. Stitches.
Waits’s ability to guide the listener toward filling in the unpleasant blanks undoubtedly drives home the entire point of the song: As community members, whether the innocent product of lack of stimulation or something more self-serving, people often feel the right to learn and know as much about their neighbors as possible. After all, the unknown can often be uncomfortable territory, where worst-case scenarios and dark psychological tentacles loom large, waiting to strangle the logic out of anybody who allows them to. Fittingly, Waits is credited with vocals on all American Musings’ songs, aside from the one in question, on which he is credited simply as “the voice.”
One of the most prolific and respected songwriters to emerge from America in the past 50 years, Waits’s songs have found mainstream success via unlikely avenues such as Rod Stewart (Downtown Train,) Bette Midler (I Never Talk to Strangers,) while his songs have been covered by artists ranging from The Ramones and Willie Nelson to Scarlett Johansson and Norah Jones.
Which brings us to the ultimate question: What is he building in there? Based on the evidence, one can justly assume one thing at the very least – a legacy that will echo through the American folk and pop music industries for decades and generations to come.