Tom Waits

House Where Nobody Lives

Song Review by

Having spent the better part of his songwriting career covering urban subjects and city dwellers, from Los Angeles to Minneapolis to New York, Tom Waits finally became a family man and moved to a rural small town in Northern California. The area inevitably started to creep into his writing, most evidently on his 1999 record Mule Variations. Though "House Where Nobody Lives" seems to be inspired by an old country house, its tone is universal enough that anyone living in the suburbs or city can identify. As in a few other Waits songs, like "What's He Building in There?" from the same album, "House Where Nobody Lives" involves the speculation of people about their neighbors. But unlike the former song, which is a humorous look at suspicious and nosy busybodies who draw paranoid conclusions about a single man in their neighborhood, in "House Where Nobody Lives" the narrator is a neighbor who can only draw sympathetic and heart-wrenching lessons from an abandoned house. Over a classic country-soul arpeggio, Waits spins a sad tale of an anonymous broken family, echoing Charlie Rich and even B.J. Thomas in the chorus lines "Once it held laughter once it held dreams/Did they throw it away? Did they know what it means?/Did someone's heart break or did someone do somebody wrong?" Waits peppers the lyric with trademark imagery that draws the listener into the song; lines like "There were birds in the chimney and an old chest of drawers" and "The paint was all cracked/It was peeled off of the wood/Their papers were stacked on the porch where I stood." The simple message in the hands of a writer of lesser ability could some off like a trite pot-holder greeting like "love makes a house a home," but when an expert like Waits -- who has always balanced his just-right amount of sentimentality with original, rich image-laden poetics -- tackles the same subject, the song tugs at the heart-strings without ever seeming maudlin.

Appears On

Year Artist/Album Label Time AllMusic Rating
Mule Variations 1999 Anti / Epitaph 4:14
The Archives The Broadcast Archive 6:07