Blood Money From a Master: Tom Waits
Vincent Francone
6/16/2002 8:00:44 PM

There was a dot, and that dot exploded and that explosion made matter and matter made the planets and the universe and from that life was formed in its crudest manifestation, all so that one day a man named Tom Waits would arise and write songs with mad lyrics like, "The higher that the monkey can climb, the more he shows his tail." As much as this delights with its whimsy, it is ultimately the most depressing lyric I have ever heard. And the truest.

In a career that has already seen a few twists and turns, Tom Waits has spent the better part of these last years making music written for stage shows -- a world he first explored with his fantastic Frankís Wild Years and again on the brilliant, surreal, The Black Rider. The idea of scoring pieces of music that told a story was almost a forgone conclusion considering the odd sort of theatrics Waits has become famous for. Itís no surprise that these theatrical conceptions should stand among his finest efforts.

After coming back strong with Mule Variations, a fine record that seemed out of place on punk label, Epitaph, Waits has given us two very wonderful and distinct records, released simultaneously. Of them, Blood Money [Anti] certainly comes across as the darker record centering on a themes of hopelessness and despair. Taken from a story of a soldier driven mad by army experiments and the sight of his wifeís infidelity, Blood Money boasts songs that range from the comically nihilistic ("Godís Away on Business," "Everything Goes to Hell," ) to the truly desperate ("Another Manís Vine"), all with the odd arrangements and lyrical touches that are quintessentially Tom Waits. Some of these songs might amuse, others might stun (especially the haunting and beautiful "The Part You Throw Away,) but all cohere wonderfully as a whole.

Blood Money is Waits and his long time wife and collaborator, Kathleen Brennan, doing what they do: taking an idea and running with it to the most unusual and unexpected place. In the hands of other composers, this story might come out sounding like any number of uninspired Hollywood soundtracks, but Waits and Brennan seek out the bizarre, the beautiful, and the raw and make them into art with the aid of the most eclectic instruments used on any one record. The junk yard orchestra sound of classic Waits records like Swordfishtrombones, Rain Dogs, and Bone Machine continues here forging into a unified vision that never overshadows the simplicity and purity of the songs. Rather than use a calliope or marimba to make an overwhelming sound, Waits lets these unique instruments subtly flavor his compositions.

Tom Waits may be remembered -- and dismissed -- by some as the quasi-beatnik of the seventies, or be ignored by others even as he creates what is easily some of the most interesting music coming from anywhere. In either case, a crime is being committed. There is no one else out there who can produce such unusual and compelling music and, at the same time, raise a dry smile. Tom Waits has done so much for music by simply doing what he does: writing and recording songs that paint a vivid picture, bringing the listener to a strange and fascinating world, one that cannot be easily shaken off. It seems as though he is quite comfortable with his semi-celebrity and will therefore continue taking chances like Blood Money. So long as the results are this wonderful, I will continue to celebrate.


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