erasing clouds

Tom Waits, Blood Money, Alice

reviewed by Dave heaton

With his 1983 album Swordfishtrombones, the already established oddball genius Tom Waits created an even wilder, complicated universe, one that he's been creating variations of ever since. It's a vivid creative world where old song forms, circus music, late-night jazz, the nostalgic tinges of "Auld Lang Syne" and the sounds of a junkyard meet to tell stories of drunks, eccentrics, evangelists, thieves, prostitutes and sailors on leave, with lives filled with broken dreams and silent hopes. They're songs set in bars, carnivals, dark alleys, empty farms, racetracks and ballrooms, where people are eternally traveling, dreaming, crying, gambling, scheming and trying to figure each other out. They're also songs for some reason always remind me of the island at the end of Pinocchio, a place of chaos and mischief.

Both of Waits' new albums are recently recorded collections of songs he and his longtime collaborator, his wife Kathleen Brennan, wrote for Robert Wilson plays. Blood Money, written for Wilson's version of the German folk tale Woyzeck, encapsulates the post-Swordfish… Waits sound as fully and vividly as ever, recalling the mood of classic Waits albums like Frank's Wild Years and Raindogs. It also represents the darkest vision Waits has offered yet. Several tracks, with titles like "Misery Is the River of the World" and "God's Away on Business," come from the perspective of a devil-ish ringleader, reveling in mayhem and fear. While these songs are delivered by Waits in his most gravelly voice, like a drunken bear, other tracks, like the touching ballads "All the World Is Green" and "Coney Island Baby," indicate that Waits' voice isn't as narrow as it might seem to some--he has an emotional range rivaling just about anyone.

Alice, featuring songs from Wilson's 1992 opera about Lewis Carroll's obsession with the girl that inspired Alice in Wonderland, is a mellower album, with less guitar and more organ, that is no less affecting or intriguing. Warped tales of outcasts--like "Poor Edward," a man born with a woman's face on the back of his head, or "Tabletop Joe," a man born without any limbs who becomes a tabletop performer--lie beside ballads of obsession that have heart to match the eccentricity.

Both Blood Money and Alice present carefully constructed dreamworlds that also feel very much in the now, part of the world around us as well as our imaginations. They also both showcase a songwriter who I personally see as nothing less than a living legend, one of the most unique artists and personalities of our time.


Issue 10, July 2002 | next article

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