Home Read Classic Album Review: Tom Waits | Alice / Blood Money

Classic Album Review: Tom Waits | Alice / Blood Money

The boho troubadour drops one album of grand weepers & another of grim reapers.

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This came out in 2002 – or at least that’s when I got it. Here’s what I said about it back then (with some minor editing):

 


When performers put out two albums on the same day, it usually smacks of hubris (Guns ’N RosesUse Your Illusion I & II) or hyperactivity (Bruce Springsteen’s Lucky Town and Human Touch).

Somehow, I can’t see either of these scenarios applying to Tom Waits. After all, a guy who took six years to put out his last record is hardly a workaholic. And a guy who probably hasn’t sold as many albums in his whole career as Celine Dion sold this week really doesn’t have much call to go on some rock-star ego trip over his new records.

Besides, when you get right down to the nitty-gritty, neither Alice nor Blood Money — the two fraternal-twin CDs Waits just delivered simultaneously — is a totally new record. Yes, they were both recorded within the past couple of years. But in terms of content and intent, these albums belong next to 1993’s Black Rider, Waits’ previous album before his 1999 comeback Mule Variations. Like Black Rider, both Alice and Blood Money were originally written to accompany stage shows by avant-garde director Robert Wilson. Like Black Rider, they owe a little more to Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill than, say, Hoagy Carmichael and Bob Dylan. And like Black Rider, they’re even weirder and darker than Waits’ usual work — and that’s saying something.

Alice comes first, both alphabetically and chronologically. These tracks were penned in 1992, and were widely bootleged after the demos were stolen from Tom’s car. (Waits claims he ended up buying a copy on eBay.) These 15 songs are reportedly based on writer Lewis Carroll’s obsession with Alice Liddell, the girl who inspired Alice in Wonderland. Fittingly, these 15 songs are lonely, yearning ballads set in a twilight netherworld of passion and heartbreak. Train whistles sound in the distance, an old gypsy band gets tipsy and plays some cool jazz for the tourists at the Cabaret, and the circus master cranks up the old Victrola while Tom wanders the Reeperbahn, sputtering in German and asking passersby why “No one puts flowers on a flower’s grave” in the craggy, rumbling baritone that is both his trademark and secret weapon. From the late-night torch balladry of opening title cut to the scratchy violin lines of the sombre closing instrumental lament Fawn, Alice delivers some of Waits’ most consistent work — and some of his saddest.

Not that Blood Money is some sort of cartoon cavalacade. Written in 2000 for a production called Woyzeck, these cuts were supposed inspiredly by an 1837 play about a solider who murders his lover after being driven mad by her infidelity (and some bizarre army medical experiments). Seriously. Still, for all that strangeness, Blood Money is probably closer to a conventional Waits album — if that adjective can ever be used to describe his work. The lumpy lurching rhythms and honking skronking saxes, the pawnshop marimbas and junkshop pianos, the twisted Tin Pan Alley melodies and razor-sharp lyrics about misery and murderers — and, of course, Tom’s idling semi-truck vocals — recall the sound of late-’80s efforts like Frank’s Wild Years. And black-hearted gems like Misery Is The River Of The World, God’s Away On Business, Starving In The Belly Of A Whale are right up there with anything Tom’s written in the last 15 years.

A couple of years ago, Waits opined he writes two kinds of songs: “Grand weepers and grim reapers.” If you want the former, buy Alice. If you want the latter, go for Blood Money. Better yet, get both. After all, it isn’t every day a guy like Waits lets you get twice the pleasure (and sweet misery) out of one trip to the record store.