Tom Waits: Blood Money and Alice (2002)
by M.W. Young
I thought of a perfect metaphor to describe Tom Waits’ new album, “Alice,” which is based on his score for a contemporary German musical of the same name. Content with one exacting illustration, I rolled over to go back to sleep only to remember that Waits had released two albums at the same time.
This meant more work...But first, a little about the man:
TOM WAITS spent the seventies as a sort of Beat-and-Bukowski inspired barroom piano player, singing tunes full of booze and blondes. As the world went psychadellic and the basis for every “classic rock” station of today was being set, Tom Waits hid in the dirty alleys and grimy hotels along the wrong side of the Hollywood tracks.
In the eighties, as the world went yuppie and Huey Lewis had the News, Tom’s music molted. It evolved like a butterfly that had been a catapiller, though where the earlier had been a drunk, the latter was just crazy. Waits will use anything, from a 1928 Calliope to the buckle on his biker boots, to create a piece of music if it will sound right. I often refer to him as the grandfather of Beck when trying to sell Tom to my friends. His recent release “Mule Variations” won the 1999 Grammy for Best Contemporary Folk Album. Now he’s bringing out two new albums at the same time.
One of his latest pair, “Alice” is what would have happened if, while that early barroom piano man had taken a load of LSD, you cracked his head open and saw what was inside. “Alice” explores the possible infatuation and relationship between Lewis Carroll and Alice Liddel, who was the basis for the titular Alice in Wonderland character. “Alice” is a dreamy set filled with nonsense visions and haunting characters that blur the edge between Waits’ usual cracked cantankerous shysters and Carroll’s mad fools.
“Fish and Bird” is a sad lament about the ultimate unworkable relationship. “Poor Edward” tells the (supposedly true) story about a man with a second face (A girl’s face?) on the back of his head that “spoke to him of things heard only in Hell,” it was his “Devil Twin” that drove him to madness and suicide. “Table-Top Joe” is a ramblin’ foot-tapper that won’t leave my head, about a piano player born “without a body,” who is determined to make it rich, even if all he has are his hands.
Exploring the possibly sexual infatuation Lewis Carroll had with Alice, these are songs of longing, lost love and grieving. For every ounce of passion, there is a pound of longing and pain. One song is narrated by voice singing how lovely rain sounds after you’re buried six feet under ground. Powerful, image-packed, and expressive, there is still no one out there like Tom Waits.
Also the soundtrack for a stage production with Robert Wilson, “Blood Money” is taken from the true story of a German soldier driven mad by scientific experiments upon him and a perceived infidelity which led him to murder his young wife.
This album makes “Alice” seem like a sentimental journey of fun and fancy. The lyrics here are growling misanthropic rants. “The higher that the monkey can climb/ The more he shows his tail” barks Waits on the opening track, “Misery Is The River Of The World.” “Everything Goes To Hell,” and “God’s Away On Business,” to the final song “A Good Man Is Hard To Find,” a dirge laughing madly at empty life, the song titles alone speak volumes about this disc. It’s a harsh and ground out sound. Best described to this reporter as the “ostioporosis of ‘Bone Machine’” an earlier Waits album that seemed influenced by the early nineties grunge sound, and seems as if it wasn’t so much recorded as hammered out in a foundry somewhere this side of Perdition. Blood Money sounds like a rusting, half-buried hulk dug out from an ancient junkyard.
Even this album takes a moment to regard the beauty that is never-totally-believed out of reach. “All The World Is Green” is a sighing request for forgiveness and understanding amidst the blood and insanity.
Both of these albums have been sighted in the Director’s office of Bethany College’s radio station. Though we hold little love for “Rolling Stone,” Blood Money was recently rated in their top ten college albums. We hope this will be kept in mind when the new station crew is loading the wall up for next semester.