[29 February 2004]
Tom Waits‘s career can be divided into two halves. In the first half, he leaned heavily on his romantic, world-weary pseudo-beatnik mien and played either vaudevillian vamps full of skid-row funny-drunk humor or weepy, vaguely jazzy cabaret songs that were essentially a hipster version of Billy Joel’s Piano Man demeanor. In the second half, inspired perhaps by his marriage to playwright Kathleen Brennan, Waits worked his way into the avant-garde by broadly expanding his subject matter to include the surreal as well as the merely seedy and by reworking his instrumentation, which suddenly seemed largely salvaged from the junkyard. He stopped writing torch songs, preferring instead to write about, say, the urge to torch your neighbor’s house. Immediately, he went from being a genial anachronism along the lines of Leon Redbone to a first-rate iconoclastic genius on the order of Captain Beefheart.
Fans of this second Tom Waits should be wary of this soundtrack album, which was commissioned in 1982 by Francis Ford Coppola, who decided to make a musical follow up to Apocalypse Now after hearing Waits’s Foreign Affairs album. Despite being a consolidation of the strengths of Waits’s earlier style, One from the Heart is still squarely in show-tune land, resembling a Broadway score rather than Waits’s later compositions for the theatre. In other words, don’t expect this to sound anything like The Black Rider or Frank’s Wild Years, whose opaque, ambiguous stories are buoyed by challenging, frequently abrasive music with a formal complexity so thicketed it seems a narrative component in and of itself. On this album, his last before the reinvention, the only hints of Waits’s later style appear in the “Instrumental Montage” (which foreshadows his interest in song structures derived from foreign folk culture and his knack for unconventional horn arrangements and his predilection for the accordion), “You Can’t Unring a Bell”, featuring a restrained vocal approach Waits rarely employed before, and “Little Boy Blue”, where Waits spits his words over a walking bass line and the kind of subdued organ riffing that would characterize some of Swordfishtrombones.
Otherwise, the horn and string arrangements are strictly straightforward, unsubtle, and unsurprising in their emotional shadings; in their stateliness, they cry out “sweeping” and “cinematic” without actually sweeping you away or allowing you to conjure any particular image in your mind. Maybe you need to see the film to have any context for what the emotional manipulation is supposed to mean, or maybe it’s irrelevant to wonder why you’re being moved as long as you are. Either way, you don’t get a sense of any narrative thread holding these songs together, and they are not evocative enough to make you long to construct one in the absence of the film’s plot line. You don’t get the additional payoff from the story adding up to something, from the album as a whole having an arc or overarching motifs or themes, but this lack of tightly constructed unity does allow the bonus track included on this reissue, “Candy Apple Red”, to come across as successfully as any of the others, of which “Broken Bicycles”, a metaphoric meditation on refuse, and “I Beg Your Pardon”, a concise, boozy mea culpa (a song type which Waits had virtually invented and had completely perfected by this point) are the best.
More difficult are the duets with Crystal Gayle, the country and western star best known for “Don’t It Make My Brown Eyes Blue”. Gayle has a clear, pristine voice with a governess’s enunciation, and she reads through Waits’s material with pitch-perfect efficiency. It’s a marvel to hear her shift between registers and draw out notes, adding a scratch or a squeal or a sigh here and there with painterly aplomb to demonstrate her mastery over her own vocal cords. But her performances sound technical, studied. She has two solo turns, “Is There Any Way out of This Dream?” and “Old Boyfriends”, both songs that in order to convince would need a bit of world-weariness, which is, sadly, the precise quality that Gayle’s voice lacks. To be fair, it’s difficult to imagine a successful take on these songs—Bette Midler, who was originally intended to handle the female parts, probably wouldn’t have fared much better.
But nothing could be more incongruous that Gayle delivering lines such as “I keep falling apart every year / Let’s take a hammer to it”, in her ringing Heartland-radio tone, as simultaneously solid and airy as styrofoam. You get no sense of someone falling apart, that’s for sure, no sense of the irony, despair, or humor that Waits can summon, sometimes all at once. On their duets, this is especially apparent—when Waits sings, his lyrics come alive with implication, when Gayle sings she embalms them. The inclusion of an all-Waits version of the opening duet, “Once upon A Town”, allows you to hear how much more effective the song is in just his voice. There may have been an appetizing sweet-and-sour contrast possible in their very different singing styles, but that’s not realized here. No sparks fly from the juxtaposition, and no seductive chemistry is implied; there’s no way you can imagine them looking into each other’s eyes while they sing; it frequently seems like couldn’t possibly be in the same room, so separate are their musical universes. Sidling their voices next to each other only highlights their respective weaknesses: he sounds more shticky and she sounds more stagy. Repeating listening mellows some of the strangeness of the pairing and allows some of the subtle strengths of these songs to shine through. But anyone listening who’s not already a hardened Waits devotee may well wonder whether paying that kind of extended attention is worth the effort.
Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/waitstom-onefrom/