Tom Waits banks on the unexpected. His own style, as varied as it is indefinable, changes with the weather. Each new change though, however drastic, is no less or more true to Waits's body of work than the last, nor does it seem to contradict the artist's own patchwork persona. Indeed, Waits is one of those rare artists who gets better with age, each new venture blending with the last.
In this fashion, while his last album, 1999's Mule Variations, was a thorough tribute to dusty Americana, his two new albums, released simultaneously this week, are lavishly Victorian and macabre. The shift in style is far from discreet, though. Like a new layer of paint slapped over half a dozen previous ones, the old coats show through to tint the new.
Waits himself is an eclectic character. At times a thespian, busker, rambling man, and performance poet, his story is as convoluted and apocryphal as that of a character in one of his songs. Reluctant to speak at length about his personal history, Waits was once noted for saying that it was easier for him to make up his past than recount it. Suggesting also that "the stories behind most songs are less interesting than the songs themselves," Waits emphasizes the role of narrative and fantasy in his music.
Listening to Alice, one of the two new albums, is indeed like letting yourself slip into an underwater world where everything is lit by a murky blue light, filtered through layers of seaweed and flotsam, sunken ships and drowned sailors. The album is a collage of half-remembered elementsan old saxophone, the music-box tinkling of a glockenspiel, the husky whistle of a steam train. Its loose ties to the Victorian fantasies of Lewis Carroll cast its fifteen songs into a narrative of childhood memory, albeit fragmentary and distorted, equal parts slumber and terror.
Alice is a fantasy, an anthology of monologues, nightmares, and lullabies. Like an old book of sinister characters and ambiguous symbols, the narrative quality of the collection is palpable, with Waits as the old crazy storyteller, whose own involvement in the stories is never entirely clear.
Longtime fans who listen to Alice will find comforting continuities with Waits's existing body of work: wiry ballads that recall his folksinger days on Asylum Records as well as the large-scale theatrical works one would associate with Black Rider or Frank's Wild Years.
Theatrical is indeed the appropriate word for this album. Although a new recording, the songs of Alice have their origins in a 1992 avant-garde opera of the same name, directed by Robert Wilson for the Thalia Theater in Hamburg. Waits and co-writer Kathleen Brennan (also his wife), penned the score, as well as directed an eclectic orchestra for the production. Based loosely on Lewis Carroll's infatuation with the young Alice Liddell, Alice ran for eighteen months at the Thalia, after which Waits's and Brennan's score disappeared into the realm of the "lost masterpiece."
Recognizing its status as an operatic piece, and one associated with Carroll at that, helps immeasurably in gaining a full grasp on Alice and its storybook undertones. In the plonking, carnivalesque "Everything You Can Think," Waits throws in snatches of old nursery rhymes: "Everything you can think of is true/ The dish ran away with the spoon/ Dig deep in your heart for that little red glow/ We're decomposing as we go." Waits's voice is thicker and throatier than ever before, an ogre-like growl that pumps out the song's wind-up rhythm. The result is a sinister and blackly comical dirge to which you could imaging a procession of Edward Gorey characters mechanically marching against a Tim Burton backdrop.
This appropriation and juxtaposition of imagery is something Waits has always favored: taking unexpected fragments of memory as kindling and dredging the backwaters of historical music for newer and stranger instruments with which to fan the flames. Though gaining a reputation as an experimental artist, it would be wrong to brand Waits as purely avant-garde. Before his voice tasted gravel and his instruments became peculiar, Waits exhibited a solid foundation in folk and jazz, mixing them at will in his understated early recordings. This influence has withstood the years, and on each of his many recordings, simple and beautifully melodic ballads resurface, reaffirming Waits's uncontestable prowess as a songwriter.
Blood Money is the second of Waits's albums to be released this week. Though altogether more aggressive and experimental than Alice, the two albums converge in their common originsthe avant-garde theater. As a result, both display the trappings of Waits's longtime involvement with the performing arts.
Working as actor, writer, and composer, Waits has collaborated over the years with the likes of Jim Jarmusch, Francis Ford Coppola, William Burroughs, and Robin Wilson. 1986 alone saw Waits co-star in Jarmusch's Down By Law (opposite Roberto Benigni in his US debut), as well as his theatrical debut, Frank's Wild Years, at Chicago's Steppenwolf Theater.
Blood Money first appeared in 2000 as the score for Wilson's avant-garde production of Woyzeck, an 1837 play based on the true story of a German soldier who, driven to madness by army medical experiments, ends up murdering his lover. One might have expected Waits to find inspiration amid such dark and bizarre circumstances, or perhaps for such a production to find him.
Victorian by design, therefore, Blood Money, like Alice, revels in the murky light of old circus freaks, chipped wooden toys, and faded lace. Generally more rollicking and darkly festive than Alice, Blood Money also contains hues of the 1920s German expressionist cabaret (bringing to mind a 1994 tribute to Kurt Weill to which Waits contributed).
Using marimba, trumpet, bass clarinet, and Waits's schizophrenic vocals, the songs of Blood Money are scathing, rambling, and heaving masses harvested from the bottom of something deep. "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 that ditch/ You're out of luck, you're out of luck," Waits growls in "God's Away on Business." With such sardonic titles and vocals, one is also reminded of Waits's ever-present dry humor. Like the theater that spawned it, Blood Money is grim and insightful, but also entertains.
With Waits's recognition at its all-time high (even Dylan once cited Waits as one of his "secret heroes"), it's encouraging and exhilarating that Waits can still surprise his audience. That is, after all, his trade.