Revisiting my extensive music collection, one artist at a time
After 30 years and with 15 albums under his belt, Tom Waits entered the new millennium on a high after 1999’s Grammy-winning Mule Variations. Three years later he released two “sister albums” on the same day: Blood Money and Alice. Both of these were based on theatrical productions, but instead of seeming like disjointed collections of songs that require a cohesive narrative and/or visual accompaniment, they work as stand-alone studio albums. He wasn’t breaking any new ground, musically- or lyrically-speaking, but his gift for writing poetic lyrics and haunting melodies remained undiminished, so even though neither of these albums is a masterwork, they each include songs that are among his very best.
Many write-ups of these releases discuss Alice first, but I’m going to start with Blood Money (2002), which has the lower catalog number. There’s a lot of anger and bitterness here, which is not surprising considering this is his first post-9/11 release. His gruff, barking voice also takes on an even more affected quality than before, making comparisons to Sesame Street’s Cookie Monster not far off base. I can see how this might turn off some listeners, even those who enjoyed his recent work, but I had no problem with it. The album begins with “Misery Is The River Of The World.” I love the roller coaster carnival melody and the cool (if slightly cartoonish) atmosphere created by the marimba. This is offset by some pretty dark lyrics (“All the good in the world you can put inside a thimble and still have room for you and me”; “If there’s one thing you can say about mankind, there’s nothing kind about man”). “Coney Island Baby” is a highlight for me; a pretty piano ballad that sounds like a very old tune (“When I’m with her, I’m the richest man in town”; “All the stars make their wishes on her eyes”). He comes across like a less inebriated Shane MacGowan (of The Pogues), especially his aching vocals at “She’s the moon in the mist to me.” I also like the tasteful trumpet solo with cello. “God’s Away On Business,” which features The Police’s Stewart Copeland on drums, is not for everyone, but you don’t forget it once you’ve heard it. Check out this wonderful video of Cookie Monster apparently lip synching to this song:
“Lullaby” may be quiet & peaceful, with Waits on a slowly plucked acoustic guitar along with violin & cello, but lyrically speaking it’s not the most soothing lullaby (“Sun is red, moon is cracked, daddy’s never coming back”). It’s beautiful, however, and a major highlight of this album. “Starving In The Belly Of A Whale” has an insistent groove with Charlie Musselwhite’s harmonica adding blasts of tension. It’s an intense song with stark and bitter lyrics (“When the day breaks, and the earth quakes, life’s a mistake all day long”; “Tell me who gives a good goddamn, you’ll never get out alive”).
[Tom Waits – “Starving In The Belly Of A Whale”]
The pump organ and calliope on “A Good Man Is Hard To Find” give the song a hypnotic carnival vibe, and Waits sounds like a twisted Louis Armstrong (“I always play Russian Roulette in my head”; “I’ll always remember to forget about you”). Ara Anderson’s fantastic old-jazz trumpet solo is a highlight of this song. “Everything Goes To Hell” features half-spoken vocals and a cool & biting refrain in the chorus: “I don’t believe you go to heaven when you’re good. Everything goes to hell anyway.” I enjoyed the sweet clarinet and subtle marimba during the slow steady shuffle of “All The World Is Green,” with its small jazz combo feel. It’s a song about love, marriage, infidelity, forgiveness and death (“The dew will settle on our grave when all the world is green”). The remainder of the album is mostly pleasant but not terribly noteworthy. However, as noted in these two paragraphs, there are enough excellent songs to make this album another winner, even if it doesn’t quite reach the levels of his best work.
Alice (2002) may have been released at the same time as Blood Money, but it’s a drastically different record. The Cookie Monster vocals are mostly absent, and the music is more subdued and reflective. It might be one of the most accessible albums of his career, although for me there aren’t as many standout tracks as my favorite Waits releases. That’s not to say there aren’t some great songs here, and there’s nothing bad or unlistenable, but some are merely pleasant. “Alice” is a wonderful smoky ballad with nice brush work on the snare by Gino Robair and muted trumpet by Ara Anderson. It’s a throwback to his mid-70s work, with strong and unaffected vocals, and lyrics about forbidden love (“And so a secret kiss brings madness with the bliss”), a theme that pops up throughout the album. “Kommienezuspadt” is the exact opposite, with a bouncy oompah-type rhythm and sung in German with highly affected vocals. Not sure why I like this one so much, but it has a cool mood and excellent baritone sax by Colin Stetson. “Poor Edward” is a mournful ballad with awesome cello work by Matt Brubeck (son of legendary jazz pianist & composer Dave Brubeck). The lyrics are quite interesting, seemingly about a man with a woman’s (or young girl’s) face on the back of his head who drives him to suicide, but most likely it’s a metaphor for his forbidden love. “Table Top Joe” is silly and fun (about a “man without a body” who can play piano); a blues/jazz shuffle with affected old-jazz vocals (actually like a female jazz singer) and a great melody, especially the simple chorus.
I like the piano during the intro of “I’m Still Here,” a pretty and inviting song that’s melancholy but also sweet & uplifting. I also love the way he sings, “You haven’t looked at me that way in years.” “Fish & Bird” is slow and sad, but features a gorgeous melody (especially at “And a song that we’d never heard, a song of a little bird”), and the lyrics are a touching metaphor for two people who long for each other but can’t be together (like the titular animals). “Reeperbahn” is another highlight. It sounds like an old German pub song (if that’s what they’re called), although it’s also similar to other Waits songs and I really enjoy his vocal performance (especially the extended “Reeeee” when he sings the title).
“Everything You Can Think” has some impressively bizarre imagery (“Everything you can think of is true, and fishes make wishes on you”; “Before the ocean was blue, we were lost in a flood, run red with your blood, Nigerian skeleton crew”), but sounds like Cookie Monster singing a weird nursery rhyme. “Flower’s Grave” is a sad & mournful ballad with gruff yet heartfelt vocals, a sweet melody and a nice string arrangement. “No One Knows I’m Gone,” which is sung from the perspective of someone buried in an unknown grave, is a sad string-laden song with striking lyrics (“The rain makes such a lovely sound to those who are six feet underground”). The rest of the album didn’t make much of an impact on me, comprised of mostly formless songs, typical Waits quirkiness, and one brief instrumental. Although Alice is a very good album with a handful of great songs, Blood Money gets my vote as the better of these two simultaneously released albums.
On the surface, Real Gone (2004) isn’t a major departure. The album is filled with growling/honking/barking vocals, angular guitar work, heavily percussive grooves and typical Waits imagery. There are a couple of noticeable differences here, though, most notably the lack of piano, which make this the first time that instrument hasn’t appeared on one of his albums. Also, his son Casey Waits adds turntable scratching to the musical palette, giving many of the songs a modern quality that I’m sure was a turn-off for many fans. Even I was initially skeptical, but eventually I came to appreciate the new texture it provided. Finally, the in-your-face production, especially on the vocals, gives most of the album a raw, urgent feel. One of the cornerstone tracks here is “Sins Of My Father,” a 10-1/2 minute slow blues song with hints of African-American spirituals. It’s got a simple structure: six similar verses, each followed by the chorus of “I’m gonna take the sins of my father/mother/brother, down to the pond,” and a tasteful guitar solo by Marc Ribot. Musically it’s hypnotic and surprisingly peaceful, while lyrically it’s a bit abstract, as he struggles to defend his life. “Hoist That Rag” is scratchy & percussive, with distorted and yelped vocals and a phenomenal angular and melodic Ribot guitar lead (with a Spanish flair). I love the melody during the verses (“The sun is up, the world is flat, damn good address for a rat”). “How’s It Gonna End” is simple and slow with a slightly bouncy feel; just guitar, bass & banjo. He offers various stories of troubled people in each verse with no clear conclusion (“…and I want to know the same thing we all want to know: How’s it going to end?”). “Dead And Lovely” is light and airy with a nice shuffle feel (brushes on the snare drum), but it’s a dark, sad story about a woman (“She was a middle class girl in over her head…but now she’s dead”) who ends up with the wrong man (“He’s not the kind of wheel you fall asleep at”). “Green Grass” has a great jazzy guitar tone from Ribot. It’s a very slow shuffle that seems like a love song (“Lay your head where my heart used to be”; “There’s a bubble of me and it’s floating in thee”) but turns sour and sinister (“Remember when you loved me”; “You’ll never be free of me”).
“Trampled Rose” is probably my favorite song from this batch of albums. The high-low “aah-aah” vocal melody has been in my head for over a week, and I love when his voice goes high during the following underlined words: “A lonely wren”; “Yesterday”; “To get the job done.” “Make It Rain” is another new Waits classic. Super slow and bluesy, with quarter-note hi-hat hits; when life is bad, rain will wash the ills away. “Don’t Go Into That Barn” has the chain gang work song feel he’s done so well in the past, but it doesn’t feel stale here. I like the repeated vocal chant (“Ooh, Aah”), and the clangy percussion. Album closer “Day After Tomorrow” is his response to the war in Iraq; a haunting Steve Earle-esque anti-war ballad sung from the perspective of a combat soldier. His weary sounding vocal performance has hints of Bruce Springsteen as well. I also enjoyed the nice guitar interplay between Waits & Ribot. Going back to the start of the record, “Top Of The Hill” introduces the scratchy turntable sound, and it’s the most contemporary-sounding thing in his catalog while maintaining an old-time John Lee Hooker vibe. I love the repeated “Stop and get me on the ride up” refrain. “Metropolitan Glide,” with its loud “Ack, Boom Boom” refrain and repetitious percussion, is more “cool” than enjoyable, but after numerous listens I began to appreciate it a lot more. There are a few other quirky, offbeat songs, as well as a brief hidden track at the end of the CD, but none of them amounted to much. Still, there are some phenomenal songs here, and my only complaint would be the length of the album…well over 70 minutes. Sometimes it’s an effort to get through the whole thing, so some judicious editing could have made this one of his all-time best albums. That’s still a minor complaint, and it’s certainly worth the effort to hear so much great music. Also, I urge anyone who previously dismissed this album because of the modern production flourishes to revisit and reassess it. I don’t think you’ll regret it.
His next official release was a 3-CD collection of new, rare and previously unreleased recordings called Orphans: Brawlers, Bawlers & Bastards, which I will revisit for my next post as I wrap up his catalog. I will conclude this post, however, by jumping slightly ahead to the excellent live album, Glitter And Doom Live (2009). Recorded in 2008 during his tours of the U.S. and Europe, it features 17 tracks (16 songs and one monologue) taken from 13 different shows. There’s also a bonus disc (or in my case, a digital download that came with the brilliant sounding double vinyl LP set I own) that compiles various humorous between-song anecdotes into one long track called “Tom Tales.” Removed from the context of the original recordings, it’s not something that bears repeated listening, although I’ve now sat through it three times. I doubt that number will increase. The most worthwhile part of this track is the performance of the Mule Variations song “Picture In A Frame.” It’s a nice performance of a beautiful song, with some pretty piano and very husky and gruff vocals. It doesn’t supersede the original studio version, but it’s a pleasant surprise and an excellent addition to this live album.
Real Gone, with five songs here, is the most represented album. My favorite song from that album, “Trampled Rose,” shows up in a beautiful (though not quite as powerful) version. “Green Grass” is quiet & jazzy, like its studio counterpart. “Make It Rain” is slow and sludgy like the original. Without any visuals, I’m curious to know why the audience gets extra excited near the end. Two songs from Brawlers appear here. The first is “Lucinda/Ain’t Goin’ Down,” which alternates between the metronomic waltz and growled vocals of the former and the 4/4 harmonica-led groove of the latter. The second, “Fannin Street,” is an excellent moody ballad with an Irish lullaby quality. I love his gruff but heartfelt vocals. I also love the rattling bones sound of the vibes on “Singapore.” His huskier vocals add additional heft to the already weighty “Dirt In The Ground.” “Such A Scream” is even better than the original, with a cool shaker-driven groove and skronky sax solo. The excellent version of “Goin’ Out West” here made me notice its similarity to T. Rex’s “Get It On (Bang A Gong).” “Falling Down,” which originally appeared as a studio recording on the live album, Big Time, is much better here, with sparse piano and gruff & growled vocals. “The Part You Throw Away,” which didn’t merit mention in my write-up on Blood Money above, is still not a favorite, but I really like the nylon string guitar solo and the guitar-and-clarinet arrangement. His vocals are overly emoted on “I’ll Shoot The Moon,” making it less serious than the original, but the power of this great song remains. Finally, “Lucky Day” is an awesome song that works perfectly as the album closer. Some people might complain that this album doesn’t reflect a single live concert, but I think it was a great decision to choose the best performances of each song and separate the music from the between-song banter, which allows the listener to focus on the songs, the voice and the musicians.
I’ll be back next week to conclude my thoroughly enjoyable trek through Tom Waits’ back catalog. I’ve already listened to the final two releases a couple of times this week, and I can safely say that this series is going to end on a high note. Until then…thanks for reading, and please let me know your thoughts on the albums discussed here in the Comments section.