Growling in the groom
The all-night drinking escapades and lonely wanderings in dawn downpours have been jettisoned, and worries much more ominous have been dragged on board Tom Waits’ raucous musical caravan.
But that dismal fate, which he began roaring about on his 1992 masterpiece “Bone Machine,” is about the only certainty on the almost as masterful and just as bleak “Blood Money.”
Waits’ first album since 1999’s “Mule Variations” is a clanging but brutally sober romp from a collapsing backyard shed through a spooky junkyard forest landscaped by the Brothers Grimm that finally tangos down a mineshaft lined with knotted barbed-wire.
The album opens with the aptly-titled “Misery is the River of the World,” where Waits growls, “If there’s one thing you can say about mankind, there’s nothing kind about man.”
Then after roaring “Misery’s the river of the world” a few times, he sings “Everybody row, everybody row.” The only truth that doesn’t leave us by ourselves is that we share the collective doom of having to rattle around in the swamp until we drown.
Waits’ legendary voice is in the key of what a demented but wilderness-wise grizzly bear might sound like shouting about all the things that can let you down in the woods.
And the music – you can imagine trolls going bonkers blurting into old tubas and pounding on steamer trunks and steam pipes with 2-by-4s.
But Waits’ genius – since releasing “Swordfishtrombones” in 1983 and then, one of rock “n’roll’s greatest records, “Rain Dogs,” in 1985 – is melding all this bedlam into a rousing melodic gallery that seems to make different sounds every time you listen to the album. It’s both a symphony and a trainwreck that’s a far cry from the wimpy, prepackaged and repetitive swill that dominates pop music these days – they’re about as different as a chainsaw and a plastic butter knife.
Waits’ first album “Closing Time,” released in 1973, is a late-night, lovesick country lament with the song “Ol “55,” later made famous by the Eagles. Later in the “70s, he released the stirring “Small Change,” a nocturnal, gin-soaked piano ode that features one of pop music’s most stirring tales of heartbreak, “Tom Traubert’s Blues.”
But in the early 80s, Waits hung up his lonesome and literary lounge act for a runaway jackhammer and began growling – though he occasionally combined the two, like on the album “Frank’s Wild Years,” released in 1987.
But Waits may have reached his growliest timbres yet on the slightly apocalyptic songs “God’s Away on Business” and “Starving in the Belly of a Whale.”
And in castaway realms like these –like on the drizzly, drunken street corners of Waits’ earlier music – there’s no one to lend a hand.
“I’d sell your heart to the junkman baby, for a buck, for a buck. If you’re looking for someone to pull you out of the ditch, you’re out of luck, you’re out of luck,” he hollers in “God’s Away on Business.”
“Alice,” for the most part, is in a lower, more heartbroken though no less chaotic gear than “Blood Money.” The 15 songs on “Alice” have their roots in Waits’ desolate, old-world soundtrack for the taxi-epic “Night on Earth,” which starred Italian comedian Roberto Benigni long before anyone in America knew who he was.
The songs on “Alice” are a gang of misfits eternally scorned by their lovers, wandering down narrow, rainy European streets and then floating slowly out to sea in a darkening fog.
On “Alice,” Waits again digs up his penchant for getting inside the heads of sideshow grotesques in the songs “Poor Edward”– a disturbing story of a man who has a woman’s face on the back of his head and will die if it’s removed –and “Table Top Joe,” –a rag about a piano player who has no body and dreams of playing in a Las Vegas casino. –
“Alice’s” final note, unlike “Blood Money,” is more one of sadness than spiritual catastrophe.
“The rain makes such a lovely sound, to those who are six feet under ground,” Waits sings in “No One Knows I’m Gone.”
Matt Zalaznick does book and music reviews for the Vail Daily. He can be reached at (970) 949-0555 ext. 606 or via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.