Arguably the only living legend for whom all four cylinders are still firing, Waits’ career stretches back to 1973’s Closing Time, an album of after-hours laments and jazz-tinged country, all filtered through a haze of cigarette smoke, whiskey and broken hearts. From this album, he developed a reputation as a “lounge operetta” singer, blending blues, country and his idiosyncratic piano styles with Hollywood strings and narratives of the lost, the lonely and the drunk. And, of course, that voice of his. Capable of crooning like a boxcar Sinatra or issuing a back-of-the-throat bellow that quite literally takes your breath away, Waits’ voice maps a direct line to the listener’s soul and often lifts even his schmaltziest work above cliché.
Inevitably, this limited stylistic range was never going to be enough for a man as relentlessly inventive as Waits, and 1983’s Swordfishtrombones was a giant leap to free-form jazz, raging percussive blues numbers and even the occasional polka. Gone were the sentimental string parts, replaced by what sounded like a man ransacking the attic of American music. This album heralded a period of sonic experimentalism and simply stunning storytelling, culminating in 1992’s Grammy award-winning Bone Machine, and 1993’s The Black Rider. This latter album stemmed from Waits’ work with theatre producer Robert Wilson on an operetta (The Black Rider) adapted by William S. Burroughs from Carl Maria von Weber’s opera Der Freischutz (The Marksman), based on a German legend of a man who sells his soul to the Devil to win the love of a maiden. Although in places it is practically unlistenable, the album The Black Rider is strikingly original; you will never, ever hear anything that sounds like it. This leads us to the albums in question here, Alice and Blood Money, since they are the belated results of two other collaborations between Waits, his wife Kathleen Brennan and Wilson.
Tom Waits has never made an album quite like Alice before. The theatrical production from which the songs are taken was originally performed in 1992 at the Thalia Theatre in Hamburg (like The Black Rider) and was loosely based on Lewis Carroll’s obsessive fascination with Alice Liddell, of Alice in Wonderland fame. The genius here is that Waits uses this template of ill-advised and unrequited love to create a mood of sheer sadness—not melancholia, sentimentalism, or self-obsession—but sadness in its purist form. Love is a ghost haunting these songs, seen in reflections and memories, sometimes spectral and terrifying as in “Poor Edward”, a surreal tale of a man born with a woman’s face on the back of his head from which he cannot be separated. The final lines deliver the terrible truth: “I say she drove him to suicide / And took Poor Edward to hell”.
Love and death interweave throughout the album, and the distinction between the two is blurred. The opening track, “Alice”, has the narrator observing “An icy pond with a frozen moon / And the skates on the pond they spell Alice” before dreaming of “Disappear[ing] in your name”. “But I must be insane / To go skating on your name / And by tracing it twice / I fell through the ice of Alice. / There’s only Alice”. The muted trumpet melts like the ice in the song, and Waits’ voice is warm, wracked with age and experience; throughout the album he sounds like Father Time, loading the weight of all the world’s love onto these fragile love songs.
His metaphors collide with each other across the album tracks, as the tears of lost love that fill the ocean in “Fish and Bird” fall as rain on a “Flower’s Grave”, and finally “the rain makes such a lovely sound / To those who are six feet underground”. Is death the logical conclusion of love? Is the listener to understand that death is the only place where love can be coped with? If so, it’s a bleak payoff, since love regenerates while its victims rot alone: “As one rose dies another blooms / It’s always been that way / I remember the showers / But no-one puts flowers / On a flower’s grave”.
Despite their differences, these albums come together thematically, in that both use the human heart as their subject, in all its strengths and weaknesses. Blood Money reveals a darker, more bitter side to this than Alice. The album is based on the play Woyzeck (written by Georg Büchner in 1837), the story of a soldier who is gradually driven insane by his lover’s infidelity and subjected to a series of bizarre medical experiments by the army, until he finally cracks and murders his lover. Like the songs on Alice, the listener is shown love at its peak of satisfaction (“Coney Island Baby”), and then its gradual descent into sorrow and torment. Except, in Blood Money‘s case, this descent is rapid and steep, and leaves Waits’ characters and the listener in an apocalyptic vision of a world in which “Everything Goes to Hell” (as the opening track of the album proclaims). The album is saved from cliché and pretension by its combination of a fascinating story with restrained and consistently inventive musical backing. And, also, with a heavy dose of Waits’ coal-black sense of humour, which makes the album infinitely more likeable than this review might suggest. The apocalyptic world Waits conjures is simultaneously unsettling and stuffed with gallows humour and God, apparently, is “. . . Away On Business”: “Digging up the dead with a shovel and a pick / It’s a job, it’s a job / Bloody moon rising with a plague and a flood / Join the mob, join the mob”.
On first listen, there are a number of tracks over the two albums that veer dangerously close to the Waits-patented “madness” style that he’s been churning out since Swordfishtrombones. “Kommeniezuspadt” from Alice is the prime example of this—a jarring, shouted German folk/punk number that really doesn’t fit on the album at all. Essentially, this “madness” style consists of Waits barking over the top of a sparse, percussive polka/rhumba/waltz (delete as appropriate), and as such it’s not necessarily a particularly compelling style. However, after a few listens, the songs on these albums emerge from behind this stylistic straitjacket, and their frantic imagery and polemic incantations against a society gone wrong (“Who are the ones that we kept in charge? / Killers, thieves and lawyers”) give the songs a momentum that is not necessarily apparent at first. Also, Waits has assembled a fantastic band of musicians, including old hands like Larry Taylor and Joe Gore whose names will be familiar to Waits fans.
Musically, the albums are not as different as initial press reports suggested. Alice was supposed to be gentle, mellow and piano-driven, and Blood Money was screaming, percussive rage. In fact, Blood Money is not even close to the sonic insanity of The Black Rider, and Alice is perky enough in places to provide some relief from the sadness (“Table Top Joe” is a twisted take on Louis Armstrong, complete with ridiculous scat singing). The use of brass and woodwind instruments in particular allows these albums a broad enough range of sounds that they can be distinguished as two different projects, despite having largely the same musicians on the two records. These tracks vary from country ballad to rhumbas, via jazz and soul influences, and frequent fall somewhere in the middle as a combination of all these elements. It is this consistent inventiveness, both lyrically and musically, that enables Waits to not only get away with such demanding subject matters, but to produce his most rewarding work in the last decade in the process. But you might want to keep Pet Sounds nearby for when it all gets too much.