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Tom Waits : Blood Money

Tom Waits : Alice

REVIEW: Tom Waits: Blood Money / Alice
4.29.2002 by Sean

Tom Waits: Blood Money [Anti, 2002]

Tom Waits: Alice [Anti, 2002]

Three words? Go buy Alice.

With Blood Money, Tom Waits returns to the seedy docks of Rain Dogs, singing songs of the broken and the drunk, the crazed and the pathetic. His voice positively drips molasses, scratchy and sometimes near-incomprehensible, like granite scraped together. Alice is a slightly different creature. Although Waits is not suddenly transformed into Engelbert Humperdink, here he shows more restraint - he sings instead of hollering, lets the poetry of his lyrics have a chance to be heard. It's a far better album, and Waits' most beautiful yet.

"God's Away on Business" is the archetypal Blood Money song. Horns and off-kilter drums trundle like a macabre music-box; they creak and clatter with a flat, real-world sound, the tools of a foley operator. Waits throws himself into this carnivalesque polka, speak-singing in abrupt, blubbering statements: "The ship is sinking / Ship is sinking." A trumpet smirks in the background, occasionally rising out of the tuba-rattle fray. Each time we hit the chorus, the orchestration stops and starts, letting Waits repeat - eight times - that "God's away" on business. This isn't some fluttering crescendo of emotion or melody - merely the near-monotonous repetition of an initially-amusing but ultimately-boring witticism. Though the song is only three minutes long, it feels twice that.

Other songs - "Coney Island Baby", "Another's Man Vine" - get away from the repetitious rambling, but these ballads trudge with sleepy saxophone; Waits himself doesn't seem to care about what he's singing. When he does try to communicate emotion, it comes across as schtick. Though the black Singapore circus of Rain Dogs was rich in sadness and lonely poetry, Blood Money is a pale, forced imitation. Honesty shines through in "Lullabye", but it is marooned in an album of numb, blustery rants and dragging sleaze-dirges.

Alice, on the other hand, is a gem. The title track staggers over slightly-bruised piano, soft Stan Getz saxophone. "Arithme-tick, arithme-tock, turn the hands back on the clock." It's a dark, sad love song, poetic and lost. There are many more on this disc - from the self-mourning "Flower's Grave" to the more thick-voiced "Reeperbahn". Violin abounds on Alice, singing romance and sadness in equal portions. It's not all mopey, however. The German-meets-gibberish of "Kommienezuspadt" is absolutely wonderful - Waits croaks and whines in a thick, indecipherable language, coaxed by clockwork and a whinnying saxophone. Like a German soldier who is invited to sing karaoke, Waits is grinning as he sings - he entices, laughs, treads the line between horror and comedy.

"Watch Her Disappear" is a black, magical story: depression layered with subtle humour. It's more nuanced than anything on Blood Money, more moving. "I hear your champagne laugh / You wear two orchids." "Lost in the Harbour" transforms takes hopeful flute and strings - like a Mary Poppins parable - and threads it with a(n) (un)settling, minor-key accordion line.

Alice travels from asylum craziness to near-silence without missing a beat. The scope of its emotions is vast and the extent of its artistry rivals the best in recent years. Where Blood Money suggests that Tom Waits may be worn out or washed up, Alice shows his talent to be as vital as ever, his vision and voice as true as they have ever been.

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