About five seconds into this album Tom sounds like a caricature of himself, all marimbas and oompa-oompa fart-horns and gruff sailor cliches, and it seems like it’s all downhill into growly-voiced silliness. But then “Clap Hands” starts with a little bell and a clattering of Charlie Weirddrums as you do but in a fantastically catchy and original drum-melody with the guitar handling the rhythm section instead somehow, then the vocals, again a fabulous melody and sort of feeling about some New York clamour leading into a sardonic chorus of repeating “Clap Hands” and you know it’s going to be much better than alright.
The latter is the norm here, Waits World’s’ best crazypants album as far as I know. I’m pretty sure it’s one of those New York symphony type albums, all frantic immigrants and crowded corners. But fuck if this one doesn’t make me yearn to be in NY circa 1950 or so. Imaginary streets are all alive and shit. Tom Waits is to percussion what Jandek is to guitar, making his own tunings and sounds, but unlike Jandek he has an interest in making listenable songs, just enough to make you feel loved.
And that’s the secret here – this stuff is weird – but this is likeable stuff. The melodies really hang together. There’s very little misstepping into cliche or sentimentality. Every song here (except the opener, “Singapore”) is positive and sticks in my head, and I’m not even talking about the two late-album obvious radio bait pieces (“Blind Love” and “Downtown Train”). The musical cacophony of “Midtown” segues perfectly into the vocal cacophony of the spoken-word-ish “9th and Hennepin” and “Anywhere I Lay My Head” (as in “anywhere I lay my head / I’m gonna call my home”) is the perfect closer, sad and nostalgic before finishing with another minute of braaaping horn noise.
The lyrics are great when I bother listening to them but usually the feeling is communicated through whatever postmodern crap Tom’s singing, and that’s quite the achievement. And most of the songs here are sad tales of lonely people and fallen-down social climbers, and then there’s “Time”, the disturbingly lovely ode to…uh, something, but anyone who feels nothing at the chorus of singing “it’s time, time time / It’s time, time time / It’s time, time, time that you loved / It’s time, time time” is no friend of mine with musical opinions I completely respect. It’s perfect for moves, break-ups, deaths, loneliness, and popularity. It’s a social service.
So I was sitting on a ledge today with a friend of mine with very right-wing views on the Middle East, and another friend came by, one we hadn’t seen in years, who I used to argue with because she had even more right-wing views on the Middle East. But she’s become more moderate! First of all, I think that’s great – the world needs more Zionists against the occupation – and second of all it humorously disappointed the first friend, but as the scene unfolded I reflected on how Tom could make it into a beautiful song. Then we all had tea and talked about our lives and it was almost interesting enough for Tom Waits to make into another beautiful song as we parted and knew it might be years again. It’s that album – funny, wacky, yet sad sad sad, all the sadness of a Hong Kong whorehouse in every verse of every song, except stupid “Singapore”.