Sunday, 22 April 2018

Alice - Tom Waits

Provenance: This was one of the ten Tom Waits albums my wonderful partner Sea got me one Christmas. Thought it about time I reviewed another of these buggers.

Review: I don't have many albums comprised of music written specifically for plays - by my estimation, two, both of which are by Tom Waits. One is The Black Rider, and the other is this darkly shining shard of anthracite, Alice. God damn, this is good. But then again, so much of his 'latter period' stuff is. That he hasn't released an album since 2011 is a minor crime - to paraphrase Alan Partridge, "come back on, Tom Waits, and play some more."

For the record, I've never seen the play Alice, so I don't have any real sense of narrative on which to hang this song cycle on. There's a part of me that dearly wishes I do get to see a production one day and another part, the one that enjoys the play of the imagination when it's coupled with music, that does not. Waits' music on Alice conjures up vivid moods and atmospheres at every turn; and maybe I don't want the innerspace universe I've built around it to be disturbed.

On Alice, Waits visits many different styles and switches masks with ease, but there's always a unifying element that is hard to define. Whether he is bellowing out angular Beefheartian rollickers replete with junkyard percussion, or tentatively nosing his way through a torch song, it's indelibly Waits. Which is what? A kind of Pop High Gothic, a kind of Low Jazz and a relish for the macabre every bit as full-blooded as Edgar Allan Poe. He's a barroom versifier, sweeping profundities from the floor 'round 'bout closing time, but also able to fashion a song about fictional 19th century nobleman Edward Mordake that is wrapped in the faded, crumbling elegance of Grey Gardens. About the only time I was transported from my reverie during the first half of the album came during the early stages of 'Kommienezuspadt', purely because Waits sings in a voice that sounds uncannily like that of Herve Villechaize, he of Fantasy Island fame.

(NB: I would be the first in line if Tom Waits were to release a song that consisted of him screaming 'ze plane, ze plane' whilst, in the background, a honky-tonk piano fell down a flight of stairs.)

The other element that I think has percolated to the surface throughout Waits' career, and is in evidence here, is a clear love of acoustic instrumentation that is warm and wobbly. There are dashes of electric guitar here and there, and sometimes Waits does use a Mellotron (one of the most underrated - and underused - instruments in popular music?), but my goodness, one has to just stand back in admiration at his dedicated to the fucking pump organ. What a wonderfully asthmatic sound it has though! Any song it features on thus sounds like a tuberculosis-wracked cabaret has-been, desperate for one final turn in the limelight. Glorious.

Located somewhere between Nat King Cole, Captain Beefheart, Lou Reed, Kurt Weill, nursery rhyme, Cormac McCarthy, late era Scott Walker and Jimmy Webb; that's where you'll find the Tom Waits of Alice. Hell, there are even faint echoes of post-millenium Bob Dylan, with Alice acting as the drunken, perverted uncle to Love and Theft and Modern Times. It's a disconcerting, seductive, sad, wry (someone should write something in-depth about Waits' sense of humour - just not me), startling journey, but one of the most rewarding ways to spend fifty minutes of your life. Immense.

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