Don’t be fooled by the opening notes of “Somewhere”, dutifully subtitled as being the song from West Side Story. Despite the syrupy strings and the passionate if raspy vocal, it’s not representative of Blue Valentine as a whole.
Perhaps Tom thought he was beginning to spin his wheels; after all, how many songs can you write from the perspective of a barstool while clutching a Kerouac novel? This time out he added a jazzy tinge to his R&B, with guitars and pianos both electric and dominating the arrangements. Unfortunately, a lot of it sounds the same, undercutting the vague story within “Red Shoes By The Drugstore” and the true crime detail of “Romeo Is Bleeding”. “Christmas Card From A Hooker In Minneapolis” has a few humorous lines, but it’s all a clever setup for the twist in the last verse. Then there’s “$29.00”, which is eight minutes long and seems longer.
“Wrong Side Of The Road” seems to hearken back to the slow shuffles on his second album, but “Whistlin’ Past The Graveyard” picks up the pace a bit with an infectious riff. Likewise, “A Sweet Little Bullet From A Pretty Blue Gun” seems to recycle some familiar territory, with nursery rhyme references and the pointed mention of a scarecrow. And as with the last album, the closer is a near title track, but this time it’s a slow torchy burner on electric guitar, showing off his prowess on the instrument.
Past the promise of “Somewhere”, Blue Valentine doesn’t sound that great on paper, but there’s one track we didn’t mention yet. What redeems this album comes in the middle of side two, the positively heartbreaking “Kentucky Avenue”. Quite possibly the saddest song ever written and recorded by anybody, it begins tentatively with a few rolls on the piano, then the vocal begins to describe some quirky neighborhood characters—you know, the types of oddballs you find in Tom Waits songs. But soon the identity of the narrator becomes clearer. This isn’t a barfly but a kid, somewhere before adolescence, perhaps talking to himself—or is he? Throughout the track there is only one change from the few repeating chords, and right after that interval, the song begins to expand, his voice reaching for higher notes and cracking with emotion. When the strings finally enter, the secret is revealed: the person meant to hear this monologue is confined to a wheelchair and wears legbraces. The narrator’s desire to free his friend from this virtual prison stretches his dreams to the limit, the strings underscoring both the compassion of a child and the futility of the situation.
The song is stunning, and never fails to catch in your throat. And it makes the rest of the album almost worthwhile.
Tom Waits Blue Valentine (1978)—2½