Effective but Defective

Tom Waits Wears His Mask Like a Pro

So three years after his long-awaited Mule Variations, here come two more Waits albums on Epitaph's Anti- imprint. Absent the copyright notices—which reveal that all the songs on Alice date to 1992 and all those on Blood Money to 2000, with every blasted one co-written by Brennan—nothing in the packaging indicates that both albums consist of songs written to order for separate Robert Wilson productions derived from wacked-out pedophile-cum-fantast Lewis Carroll and tortured absurdist-realist Georg Büchner, respectively. The connections are duly noted in the publicity packet, and the reviews invariably mention them. Seldom is it hinted, however, that this is a lousy way to make albums. Theater pieces are visual, CDs are not; theater pieces assume live performance in multiple voices, CDs do not; theater pieces have plots even when they're by Robert Wilson, CDs do not. A song that might work onstage as a mood enhancer or narrative bridge or change of pace turns into filler on an album, as do contract songs forced out on deadline that you never actually intended your public to hear only your public is so fanatical it bootlegged them.

Not counting the bootlegs, which happened with Alice, that last sentence is guesswork. Waits has been slipping forgettable tracks onto his albums since Closing Time in 1973—he doesn't need a rationalization. But rearranged and reselected though the material may be, both these records are seriously delimited by their sources. Maybe the two consecutive deformity songs, double-faced boy followed by man who's all hands, make sense in Alice's theatrical wonderland, but they're at least one too many here, and Blood Money's four bellows of misanthropic despair—with the gloriously self-explanatory titles "Misery Is the River of the World," "Everything Goes to Hell," "God's Away on Business," and "Starving in the Belly of a Whale"—are also overkill. Both records flatten during what are either time-marking interludes or duff songs. Though their sharpest kick is in the arrangements, which on Blood Money add Waits's latest musicological discovery, the horn-equipped Stroh violin, to his traditional g-b-d-chamberlain-pod-crankshaft-etc. ensemble, the scattered instrumentals don't parse structurally. As for Waits's singing on vehicles originally conceived for more accomplished, less distinctive vocalists, well, his partisans claim his tuneless groan is a treasurehouse of nuance, and sometimes it is, but I gotta say—one time the Jagger record came on after Alice and I caught myself breathing a sigh of relief.

None of which matters a tittle, because Waits has the bases covered. He's a genius; when he doesn't make masterpieces, he comes close. Making a show of analytic distinction, most of the reviewers who've raved about these albums slightly prefer the slower, sweeter Alice, which proves I'm not a Waits partisan—to me the tough-guy corn of his lugubrious-lyrical mode seems too squishy by half, and if "Alice" with its ice-skating figure or "Fish and Bird" with its Dr. Dolittle Romeo-and-Juliet makes some future compilation on the pull of its melody, I'll nod hello and go talk to somebody I like. Blood Money is a more consistent record, albeit unbalanced by arbitrary thematic commitments. "Lullaby" goes someplace new with its quiet "If I die before you wake/Don't you cry; don't you weep," and the perfidy-of-woman fable "Another Man's Vine" approaches tragedy by rejecting contempt. But rather than building off each other, the four life-sucks songs, only "Everything Goes to Hell" less than inspired, protest too much without sufficient compensation from the tentative attempted hit "Coney Island Baby" or "All the World Is Green," a save-our-marriage plea more tender and doomed than any Neil Young currently has on sale.

Holy on the freeways, once upon a time
photo: Courtesy Anti-Records
Holy on the freeways, once upon a time

It wasn't like this on Mule Variations, where the dullest material fit a concept that injected domesticated blues into Waits's outsider act—his best album, in no determinable way confessional, but perhaps reflective of his day-to-day emotional circumstances. More often, his songwriting falls back on older and, for him, easier tropes—the rant, the sideshow, the sad-sack moan. Maybe the reason his bandleading stands out so is that, for all his joy in language, it best articulates his deepest compulsion, which is to reject a corrupt present without wallowing in a romanticized past. He forges into the future on old instruments nobody's ever heard of because they were rejects, just like the losers and monsters whose stories he tells. This is honorable, difficult work. It's no disgrace that he fails to bring it off more often than anyone's willing to admit.

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