Tom Waits – Bad As Me

TV Tropes, the venerable website that collates apocrypha from all sorts of pop culture, lacks, as far as I know, a trope along the lines of “Old of Awesome” – the point where a musician, greatly successful in younger life, accepts his (or possibly her but seriously now) age and makes an album of old-man music that conquers the old pretenses and calmly accepts the talents the artist possesses while accomplishing a small statement. This is such an album. Tom is old. He knows he’s old, and he’s okay with it, and he’s just writing and singing what he sees and thinks and feels. There isn’t too much trying or any cloying. Like Dylan’s “Love & Theft” and I’m sure other examples I’m too stupid to immediately recall.

Here is a late-life album, without crisis. There’s little old-fogeyism, just age. Tom decries a lack of “raised right men” or how everyone’s “talking at the same time” and yearns to “get lost” and get “back in the crowd.” Then he wants to be kissed by an old lover like she was a new one who feels like the last leaf on the tree. Most of those are song titles. The old questions stay, the old desires are still new. The atmosphere is all doing what he knows he can do: growly vocals backed with piano and horns and odd percussion slickly rough production and noir atmosphere.

Thing is, Tom does all this stuff really well. He knows he can do it well, so he’s doing it. Wham bam thank you ma’am. It’s a greatest tricks tour by a professional; a professional of solid talent. This is good shit. This is a solid album of a man accepting the stylistic motions (he’s too good to be just going through them) but singing of love and dreams and fear. Life is long, not short; it’s the longest thing any of us will ever experience. Rage, rage, against Dylan Thomas and an old man is a young man with an older body and greater experience and this is obviously and well reflected.

The problem isn’t with the material per se, just the lack of amazement. Every song ends with a feeling that this is good stuff. Uptempo or downtempo, the big lack is of a song that causes the joy of hearing “Way Down in the Hole” or “Nirvana” or “Come On Up to the House” – it’s all good, never great. Maybe I’m a Jew for wanting a single, but it’s how I feel. That said, it’s remarkably consistent. If you don’t like it you don’t love T-dub. This shit is thoroughly good. It’s not hit-or-miss; it’s mild hit, mild hit, mild hit, like a golfer hitting birdie after birdie. My favourite song is on the extra online songs, “Tell Me,” a nice little reflection on the questions that remain.

I love Tom Waits, and this is like spending a few more years with a partner you know and love. He’s older and wiser but the body and the performance are still there. Nothing new, but fuck. You’re one I love and we’re together. But I might wander. I might stray for younger pastures and you know that, but I still love you and I’d still miss your body and mind. Here’s to aging well; best of luck in your marriage and if I see you I’ll tell you to drink too much and you’ll tell me how you have responsibilities now. Not a vestigial tail, more like a glorious spandrel that too many don’t know how to appreciate.


8 / 10


Tom Waits – Orphans: Brawlers, Bawlers, and Bastards

Our favourite Christian-rocker is back, this time with an album with the most excellent title ever. I mean, duuude! That’s a wicked-ass title! If you don’t agree you’re probably a fuckin’ choad.

So here’s the wacky concept: here there are three albums, and they’re divided, as the title suggests, in twain: the first album is rockier songs, the second sadder songs, and the third spoken-word-led numbers and other oddballs, of which Tom’s amassed a lot.

So, it’s impressive that there’s firty-five outtakes here at all. And I mean firty.

But first! Let me tell you this hilarious joke that’s new to me! So, a priest and a rabbi are sitting on a bench in a park and a young boy walks by. The priest looks over at the boy and says to the rabbi “…Wanna fuck him?” And the rabbi replies “…Out of what?” HEE!

But second, let me review this Tom Waits triple-album. The first CD and second aren’t actually that dissimilar, because a brawling Tom Waits sounds like he’s about to bawl and vice-versa, but fine, fine, the brawlers: the single off Brawlers was the opener, the Elvis-y “Lie To Me” that I consider overrated and meh. I’d call it a bait-and-switch, because few songs on here sound anything like each other, forgettable as many of them may be. And “meh” is about as bad as the songs here can get, with the exceptions of the outtakes from “Real Gone”, an album with far too many failed beatboxing experiments already. Tom does kinda sound like he can brawl here; it might be the combination of old Tom and new Tom (or young Tom and old Tom) makes him sound unstable, and an unstable man with that growl…I wouldn’t want to mess with an unstable man with this many problems. And yeah, it all sounds pretty problematic. Nothing seems to be going right in WaitsWorld! But that’s all right, when I want to be uplifted and Tom Waits I’ll listen to “Come On Up to the House” and “Hawaii Five Oh.” And no, most of these songs are clangy non-classics, but what do you expect from bloody outtakes, all covered in blood and shit and piss and cum? But speaking of classics, I prefer the unusual mandolin-and-bongo “Bottom of the World” (though what kind of father tells his son “the best friend you’ll have is a railroad track”?), quasi-gospel “Lord I’ve Been Changed”, and album-highlight “Rains On Me”, with its easy, angry/hopeless message and catchiness. Also for consideration is the lengthy “Road To Peace”, an outright discussion-of-current-politics song about the difficulties making peace bee slash dubya the Israelis and Palestinians. I think it’s a nice attempt to be even-handed (a unusual stance from a political song), but I think it’s unfair to Israel by a hair. Take what you will. There’s also a Ramones cover and two “Real Gone” songs stinking up the joint.

The second album are the bawlers, titled Bawlers. The first half of the album is mostly songs that sound like parts from “Mule Variations” that I therefore like, and the second half boring piano ballads. The first ones, songs like “Long Way Home” (a slightly worse “Hold On” and therefore still great) and “Fannin Street” really hit the sadness buttons and make everything correct, but there are still too many meh songs. Sadness has an important place in listening to Tom Waits, but he does tend to get a bit theatrical and go from depressing to campy, so it comes out a bit over eight million slow sad songs in a row. There’s also a stupid couple carnival-songs here, which turn my shit white with indifference. Still, most of the songs that get blendy are great on their own – “World Keeps Turning” is playing now and is almost making me cry into my wine in my lonely apartment and I know “It’s Over” and “Jayne’s Blue Wish” are about the same for sadness. Here’s what I need to do tomorrow because I’ve fucked up doing it the last two days: volunteer to run for political office, submit my book to its first agent, email a story to a friend/editor, tell my friend snarkily about the ADA’s opinion of pregnant vegans (positive), schedule a haircut (my first in five months). Hopefully a job I’m very close to getting will call back. I don’t like the album-ending closing cover of “Young At Heart”.

The last album makes the sequencing most troubling. Tom Waits being a barking spoken-worder is great, but twenty songs of it in a row gets tiresome. Only a few real songs break the monotony, and it doesn’t help that the whole CD is only 6/10-worthy. You’ll want to do a lot of skippin’-and-shortenin’. And I mean cooking with shortening, because mm, Crisco makes wonderful cookies. Did you know the word exists because “short” used to be a synonym for “crumbly?” Anyway, the highlights here are “Children’s Story”, a hilarious yet miserable shoot the shaggy dog story that starts with “Once upon a time there was a child with no father and no mother / And everyone was dead”, over a cheesy Casiotone melody. Er, comma, “Heigh Ho”, the dwarves’ work song from “Snow White” re-imagined and darkened until it sounds like a clanging slave melody, “Army Ants” (at least the first eight times you hear it and don’t have it memorized), a collection of interesting bug facts narrated by Tom Waits and therefore great, “Nirvana”, another story-”song” but written by Charles Bukowski (and thus possessed of better poetry than most) “Two Sisters”, Tom Waits’ greatest Stan Rogers-y shanty. The problem is that the stories get tiresome after a few listens. The “Real Gone”-ites have this issue, of course. The “bonus tracks” – one about how silly it is to sell bull testicles as dog treats, and another just a good yarn. But speaking of which, thanks a lot for including “bonus tracks” but not the SIX extra tracks that come with the vinyl edition. Sad, sad marketing.

There’s a lot of material here, and I like that. I don’t know about the sequencing, it hurts the last part, but it’s not a huge probem, and I mean probem. The songs are universally sad, but it you want happen then listen to John Denver, not an album called “Orphans.” Tom Waits is great, able to conjure emotion with a line, and I’m drunk on a Wednesday.

But third, let me share another hilarious joke you may not have heard:

Q: What separates man from animals?

A: The Mediterranean!

But seriously, swimming in the Mediterranean is super great.


Tom Waits – Blood Money

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.


Tom Waits – Alice

Well, bits for a musical written for a man’s carriage towards a girl that inspired Alice in Wonderland is noodly. Hypothetically it adds a layer of wacky bridges and impasses to the songs but titling an album The Brothers Anna Kareninamazov doesn’t you can skip the partridges of songwriting and violence.

But it certainly gives the title track some spicy peanut sauce, and maybe the knowledge can free your eggs from battery farming. It’s all that jazz, but when Tom lets down his hair and takes off those glasses and does a slow walk down the spiral stairs it does something to my opinion, let me tell you.

If you had a friend speak in Austrian for stretches at a time it’d be a real order of pepperoni for your Jewish friends. I like that one about as much as the Jews were in Egypt. Also I might need her for my upcoming trip to Austria.

They lit the Student centre AGAIN. Every fucking year they do it and every fucking year it only invites violence from the authorities. It doesn’t endear them and it doesn’t elect anyone different. But the beauty of the burning dissidence looked pretty. The Life and Death of Jeremy Cooper. The lavender phone bill on the squawking table is dancing a poplar tango. It’s love for a little girl! Of course it’s a waltz.

But while the title track is the real creme brulee, there’s more tastes throughout. “Bunion Betty” will have you singing “Bunion Betty, Bunion Betty, I Get Sweaty Just Thinking About My Bunion Betty” in your dreams and I guarantee you’ll never forget the newspaper title “Spot Opts: Stop Pots’ Tops” in your other dreams. You will, however forget all about Mouse Ned and His Freaking LinkedIn Profile as well as Keychain Blues the Laughing Larry and who knows about “Catty Cal” and “Fishing For Doughnuts.”

Sure, “Under the Table Dreaming” was better, but who can fault Tom Waits for drying up like a knife and shooting into the sky like cannonballs? Sure she’s pretty but you only liked her in the first place because she was pretty. What, you think she won’t be pretty and vain anymore? And how can she grasp beauty so much cleaner than she grasps grammar? And what’s with that boyfriend she never introduces you to? We grow older, and consider: I’m old enough that I played Super Mario for the NES when I was a child. Mine was the last major cohort to play things that truly sucked as a child. Will Call of Duty 4 deserve the same nostalgia? The shittyness gone by is what we miss. The apple’s gone but there’s always the core.  The feeling of finding a genuine emotional moment in so much crap. A catchy tune when by rights it should have been a blur. It takes a special person to love “Love Story (You and Me)”, less so to love “Political Science” or “Ol’ 55”. Precocity is a good thing and I’m bitterly envious. Who will cut our hair when we’re gone? There’s precious little outside world to rue, it’s all for laughter now. Hamlet wasn’t such a sweet prince. I’ll be thirty in four years, will I go bald? I’ll jump off that bridge when I get there. There’s a whale in the moon when it’s clear.


Tom Waits – VH1 Storytellers

Boy howdy, it’s a little live album!  By all counts this is a better live album than the last live album, but it’s not really worth caring about.

Here’s the concept: VH1, a radio station for the planet Forever on Mars, hired a bunch of singer-songwriters to play a show where they explain the story behind each song while playing it. Nice enough, but Tom Waits evidently didn’t much care for explaining himself, so the stories that come with the songs are either perfunctory (this is a song about a car) or blatant lies. They’re amusing and Tom’s fun to listen to at all times, but there’s little oomph. The performances themselves are mostly acoustic, quiet ones. Usually just piano and bass and maybe a delicate electric guitar in the background.

In a way it’s a companion to Nighthawks, except that that featured entirely new songs and this one features none, and to my ears nothing here is much better for being slowed down and played the same but quieter and without drums. “Chocolate Jesus” gets a spirited version through a jiggered mic that makes Tom sound like a carnival barker, but I never liked that song or that Tom. The crowd goes crazy for “I Can’t Wait to Get Off Work and See My Baby” for some reason. “Jersey Girl” seems nicer for being blatantly about his wife and all, but that song was never my favourite either.

I haven’t tired of hearing any of these songs yet, so it’s worth a lark to hear some Tom personality, but the songs remain the same. The whole show is long, too, long as a 1.9-hour-long show. Good, but not valuable.


Tom Waits – Mule Variations

Thomas! But anyway, this is Tom Waits blooze album! After six years of Philip Glassy silence the Waitsenator returns with an album that remindifies one of old black’n’sad folk music. And no, I’m not a talented enough music critic to describe exactly what it blooze. I’m here for my looks, okay? It’s slow-paced, with lots of sustained clean guitar notes and a sombre, coal-miningish atmosphere. And, Christ, with a few exceptions, the songs are played with actual drums and otherwise normal instruments! Tom Waits is playing with a band again, sort of! Don’t get too fancy in your pantsies, it won’t last.

The sorta title track, “Get Behind the Mule” invents, over seven minutes, a new way of describing shrugging one’s shoulders and getting to work. Working seventy hours this work? You’re getting behind the mule. Gonna spend the summer making minimum wage? Get behind the mule. Got a schedule full of funerals? Get behind the damned mule, it’s how it is. So that’s great. Less fantastic is that there’s no easy entry point to this album. There’s a lot of great songs but nothing “accessible” except the chorus of “Hold On.” This is great for that minute at the end of “Hold On” when Tom does the chorus four times in a row and everything is right in the world, but otherwise the album is a bit daunting. But keep at it! Tom rarely lets you down and has bread for us baby birds if we believe.

It’s a bit of a double album. Tom follows tradition by making the first song the most Waitsy and mockable song of all, and the second song is a little ol’ forgettable ballsack, but then there follow six fantastic songs, starting with “Hold On” and ending with the fucking brilliant “What’s He Building In There?”, a spoken-word journey first through a creepy guy in the neighbourhood but on repeated listenings really about paranoia and distrust and homeowners associations and filled with wonderful, quotable lines.

Sadly, the second half is far weaker. The closer “Come On Up to the House” is a nice gray spot in an album normally about the dredges of repetitive life, and “Picture in a Frame” has the album’s best verse melody and “Georgia Lee” has a lovely chorus, but “Chocolate Jesus” is an overwrought failure and “Eyeball Kid” is meh and “Filipino Box Spring Hog” has limited mileage.

But come on. This is one of the few times Tom sticks to a theme without sticking to a character, and I like the former more than the latter as Tom is concerned. You can dig it in front of normies and not have to laugh and say “Tom Waits” every few minutes. It’s the blooze and Tom is well suited to playing it, more than I think he’s suited to Carnivale or pirate songs, both of which he’s sung before to limited effect. Good stuff, soulful stuff, stuff that feeds many moods, but most of all it’s a working album, like Modest Mouse’s “This is a Long Drive etc.” Hey, could be worse, the future could have been George Orwell.

Hey, want to have awful nightmares? Play Demonophobia!


Tom Waits – Black Rider

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.