Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Tom Waits 18: Alice

He’d come back in such a resounding way with Mule Variations, so it was with relative speed that Tom Waits resurfaced yet again with not one but two albums released on the same day. Both were derived from stage productions he’d mounted with Robert Wilson, the playwright behind The Black Rider. Alice comes first alphabetically, so we’ll deal with that one here.
It’s also a good place to start, because the title track is a smoky lounge piano ballad that sounds equally at home on a Waits album from the ‘70s, ‘80s or ‘90s. It would be a wonderful torch song if it weren’t written from the point of view of an opiated adult towards an adolescent. A canned train whistle heralds the death march of “Everything You Can Think”, but while the nightmare seems to pass for “Flower’s Grave” and “No One Knows I’m Gone”, the mournful lyrics say otherwise. The CD booklet provides no lyrics for “Kommienezuspadt”, an exercise in gutteral fake German, but one might assume they would tie into the freaks the populate the next songs. “Poor Edward” is somehow afflicted with a woman’s face (“or a young girl”) on the back of his head, but perhaps he wasn’t as bad off as “Tabletop Joe”, a distant relation of the Eyeball Kid, “born without a body” but still possessing hands, so he could make music.
But “Lost In The Harbour” is the last gasp of a dying man, illustrated by what sounds like the water in the harmonium about to swallow him up, but he surfaces long enough for another verse. “We’re All Mad Here” turns the nightmare back on, followed by the monologue in “Watch Her Disappear”. One would think there’s some kind of connection to Germany, since the next track takes place in the “Reeperbahn”, unless he’s referring to the more literal translation of “rope walk”. Another respite emerges in “I’m Still Here”, which could qualify as a reconciliation, and “Fish & Bird” and “Barcarolle” are just as pretty (though the latter threatens to descend into discord in the instrumental middle). “Fawn” is a closing instrumental with a violin that sounds more like a saw.
Unlike The Black Rider, no synopsis is supplied to help us discern whatever story these songs on Alice are supposed to illustrate. The songs had sat around for ten years before this official recording was released, so fanatics already had something for comparison. For those of us entering the party with this invitation, we were less inclined to sample the food laid out. Chances are others that happened to wander in might not have stayed to see what the fuss was about, but no matter; there was the other album to consider while this one marinated.

Tom Waits Alice (2002)—

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