Daaaaa-da! Da-da! That’s how the album starts. Thanks for reading!
But seriously, kids, this is the most Tom Waitsy of all the Tom Waits albums, at least of the ones I’ve listened to so far, which is almost all of them. There’s lots of xylophones and horns and oompa-oompa percussion, and Tom’s settled into a very comfortable deep growl, from which he barks at you phrases like “if there’s one thing you can say about mankind / There’s nothing kind about man” that might be cheesy coming out of a lesser singer and nearly all of the songs sound like they could have been written anytime in the last 200 years. But Tom not only gets away with it, he makes it sound both meaningful and good.
The other thing this album is the most is negative. The first two song titles are “Misery is the River of the World” and “Everything Goes to Hell”. Everything’s very cynical and hopeless, in a sly kind of way. No good deed unpunished and that sort of thing. To my ears the negativity is a very good thing; Tom barking at me sounds far better suited to telling-it-like-it-is reasons to mute my joy. Though I should point out that there’s also a very sweet love song, “Coney Island Baby”, that works so well in part because it’s the only one here, and also because it has a wonderful melody and sounds like a 20s waltz.
And there are HOOKS everywhere. Christ it’s like a FISH GRAVEYARD. Tom usually understands what makes a song listenable, and he’s unpretentious in not challenging the listener with anything stupid. Even the customary one song per album where he takes sounding like Tom Waits too far (“Starving in the Belly of the Whale”) has hooks and sounds like a good song to your memory. Then it starts and your roll your eyes, but never mind that.
Suggestions for this album: a satirical but mournful pan over a post-apocalypse suburb, a snowstorm in April, a long streetcar ride, walking past a busy funeral home, Bushmills, watching a spider spin a web, and presumably whatever these songs were intended as a soundtrack for. This album has a wonderful quantity of that ineffable quality that stabs the heart of existence, and it’s a pleasure to listen to.
Except for the stupid instrumental “Knife Chase”. That’s just annoying.