This song is about the horrors of war. Waits took the title from graffiti that he read had been scribbled on the walls of Alcatraz, which was a notorious prison located on an island off San Francisco, and is now a popular tourist attraction.
Red Hot Chili Pepper Flea plays bass on this track, whilst Rolling Stone Keith Richards also contributes some guitar work.
The genesis of this song dates back to the period between Real Gone and Orphans in the mid 2000s, when Waits claimed to be working on an album called "Hell Brakes Luce."
The song's music video was directed by photographer Matt Mahurin, who has also helmed visuals for U2, Peter Gabriel, and Bush. It finds Waits towing a house in an aquatic war zone. "Matt Mahurin has created an apocalyptic war dream to accompany the song 'Hell Broke Luce,'" explained Wait. "Kathleen [Brennan] and I envisioned it as an enlightened drill sergeant yelling the hard truths of war to a brand new batch of recruits. The video grew from the gnawing image of a soldier pulling his home, through a battlefield, at the end of a rope."
A musician never knows if they're going to end up on a Tom Waits record. Percussionist Gino Robair recalled to Uncut: "I spent three days on 'Hell Broke Luce.' He (Waits) sent me a 20-second drum sample from this record from the 1920s, he wanted to loop it and for me to play a drum part,.We tried everything on all these old snare drums – out in the yard, inside, wherever. When the record came out, he'd replaced everything we'd done. He decided the song had to go in a different direction, and it's one of the best tracks. So you never really know. He's an improviser. You just have to go in there and have fun."