May 7, 2002


Tom Waits: A Poet of Outcasts Who's Come Inside (JON PARELES, May 5, 2002, NY Times)
Mr. Waits, 52, is a family man now, getting up early in the morning to be with his wife and musical collaborator, Kathleen Brennan, and two of his three children. (His 18-year-old daughter is attending college.)

He hasn't taken a drink, he said, in nine years, and his self-destructive alcoholic patches are two decades behind him. But from his first album, "Closing Time" (Asylum) in 1973, to the two new ones being released simultaneously on Tuesday, "Blood Money" and "Alice" (both on Anti), he has peered into dank recesses and populated his songs with drunks, hobos, prostitutes, carnies, transvestites, suicides and a few stray politicians.

In the songs, true love collides with callous fate and close observation dissolves into surrealism. The music drags hymns and parlor songs, blues and ballads into a sonic menagerie that, on the new albums, includes Swiss hand bells, calliope and a four-foot-long Indonesian seed pod, which is "as wide as a Bible," he said, and has "seeds as big as CD's."

The tunes hold some Stephen Foster, some Kurt Weill, some Louis Armstrong, some Lightnin' Hopkins, some Harry Partch, some Captain Beefheart and some circus music--clear points that Mr. Waits has connected into his own constellation. He doesn't mind that his influences show. "Most songwriters, you can trace back what they've been listening to," he said. "It's like you can go through the entrails of any animal and tell what the last three days were like. How do you reconcile your irreconcilable musical desires and dreams and wishes and memories? You may not be able to make one thing out of it. I think I feel more comfortable trying to visit different places. I don't know if I have anything that I've made that's a synthesis of the things I love. I don't think I leave it in the blender long enough."

There has been enough straightforward melody and romance to let some of Mr. Waits's songs, like "Ol' `55" and "Downtown Train," be shined up and turned into pop hits by the Eagles or Rod Stewart. But others never will be. "Blood Money" starts with songs called "Misery Is the River of the World" and "Everything Goes to Hell"; "Alice," a collection of songs written for a music-theater collaboration with Robert Wilson in 1992, is haunted by solitude and death. But both albums are bipolar, with deep-seated misanthropy and pessimism sitting alongside pure, unironic love songs like "Coney Island Baby" from "Blood Money," on which he rasps, "All the stars make their wishes on her eyes."

What's bipolar about combining misanthropy and unironic love, I ask myself. Posted by Orrin Judd at May 7, 2002 11:57 AM
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