As you no doubt know from my review of the last album that you didn’t read because the world is unfair, I think Tom is at his best when he’s taking just about any character other than his wacky carnival barker persona. So there’s a problem with this album, which is actually the soundtrack of a play (I think it was originally a play) that I saw a couple years back. The problem is that the play itself is hosted by the Waitscharacter of a carnival barker, so that persona shows up time and again, just about every time there needs to be a narrator.
The plot goes something like this: there’s a guy and a girl and the devil and it’s all vaguely turn of the century Russian. It’s somehow a collaboration with William S. Burroughs, which is about as perfect a pairing for Tom Waits possible. The Black Rider in question is the host of the show and also the devil in the show who tries to lead the Everyman protagonist astray for want of love. It’s not too original and the Waitsyness of it all, the snickering darkness and knowing deceptive light, they’re the main points. Unfortunately, the plot doesn’t come across all that well here so there’s not much reason why the narrative voice keeps lurching from song to song. The title track, in particular, ruins its uber-earwarm status by being sung in this odd fake-German accent that I don’t recall existing in either the play or the world. There are a lot of instrumentals here, even if they come across well, they leave me feeling a bit Waits deprived.
The lyrics are best when they’re eccentric and about life (the one-minute “That’s the Way” and the could-be metaphorical “Just the Right Bullets” and Bill’s “Taint No Sin”). Tom’s words have a way of working ways into your skull, and you’ll be muttering “taint no sin / to take off your skin / and dance around in your bones” or “that’s the way the y xes!” long time. However, they’re worst when they’re about love, which here is a metaphorical rose in a briar, over and over. The instrumentals are, as mentioned, rather great, especially the eerie “Black Box Theme” and the Tolstoy/ball/thing “Russian Dance”. Much worse are the repetitive quasi-instrumentals “Gospel Train” and “Oily Night”, which seem to take having some voice as an excuse to go on and on. “Oily Night” in particular is just clang clang clang oily night, oily night, oily night, oily night clang clang clang oily night, oily night, oily night, oily night for almost five goddamned minutes.
I think the main problem is that the idea here is disappointing for such a great collaboration, the themes kinda meh, and this partnered with just how many throwaway tracks are on here makes it a bit meh and overshadows some of the great stuff here. As you read in my Bone Machine review, I prefer T. Alan when he’s being more or less random over when he’s singing lots of things about the same things, and there are too few tracks here where you can just turn up the volume and turn on your mind and enjoy the songs for being great. Well, sometimes you write books and sometimes you wear sunglasses.