The music industry is lousy with self-proclaimed outsiders, loners and the angst-ridden. Bright manipulators wail about the impossibility of the human condition and the pain of love, the ironic fortune of misfits. From Everlast forlornly folking with a guitar to Trent Reznor hunched sadly over his keyboard, there's a profit to be made off the misery-loves-company mythos.
It's easy to make sad bastard music, to wallow in the pain of being alive. But it takes a special talent to put misery to a lullaby soundtrack and shake your head while tapping your feet. From his first dulcet tones on "Closing Time," Tom Waits has been the original outsider delivering terrible truths in beautiful packages. His newest album, Alice [Anti], is no exception. It only serves to cement Tom Waits as the patron saint of carnival barkers, somnambulists, lovesick drunkards and train smoke.
Alice, released simultaneously with Blood Money, is everything that has defined Waits' sound since 1983's Swordfishtrombones--weird instruments, that 4-pack a day voice, and songs that exist outside of time, crackling like 78s, booming like calliope music, quiet like a suicide. Co-written with his wife and longtime collaborator, Kathleen Bgrennan, Alice is a fairy tale seen through Cannery Row, a meditation not on Alice in Wonderland, but on Lewis Carroll. It's metamusic, and while touchstones of the Wonderland canon litter the album, it's about what drives creativity and what comes out of it.
Equally adept at juggling a dozen instruments as taking a few and whipping them into the sound of a tin pan alley choir, Waits constructs an album that feels both sparse and orchestral. It's a change in tone from Waits' recent offerings since Bone Machine, a return to his early Island days. There's a slickness to the recordings, a polish that intentionally lacked from his previous few offerings, and somehow brings it all together in a mix of smooth engineering that lets the smacking of lips, rough acoustics and the crackling of treble sneak in.
The lonesome tones of the main theme creep out from the first track, which starts off like a conversation in mid-sentence, and carry through the album. It shifts from the odd nostalgia of "Alice" to the upbeat clank boom hiss of "Everything You Can Think of Is True" and vacillates from one extreme to the other, everything carried along by the major instrument of Waits' voice, which can ease from sepulchral to ridiculous in a few minutes' time. The toy piano and drunken growl of "I'm Still Here" somehow perfectly complement the germanic alto frenzy of "Kommienezupadt." What emerges is as much a fictional portrait of Carroll's world as a snapshot of Waits'.
Few iconic artists today can barely be bothered to release an album every few years, let alone a good one. They live off the coattails of former glory and drink in the praise of their offspring. Tom Waits has often lived in the shadows of fame, creeping out to collect his kudos and sink back into quasi-anonymity. In the face of a strange breed of low-rent fame, it's all the more impressive to newcomers and reassuring to longtime fans that the original outsider can emerge with his twin tablets of music and unleash a testament to pain and beauty that speaks with more education and experience than any market research weeping you're bound to hear from all the top 40 sad bastards in existence.