Friday, June 1, 2012

Tom Waits 15: The Black Rider

It’s entirely possible that his last album avoided an overlying concept for the simple reason that he was working on something else entirely for the last few years. That something was The Black Rider, a collaboration with playwright Robert Wilson with a little help from William S. Burroughs. Presented as a play with music (a la Franks Wild Years), it places Tom happily within one of his happiest environments—the nightmarish German carnival. The opening “Lucky Day Overture” features him hawking the alleged performers through a bullhorn, continued in the title track, sung with an accent that can’t decide if it’s French or German. The promise of a “gay old time” jars with the accompaniment.
While the story is detailed in the liner notes, and full lyrics are provided, one is still hard-pressed to figure out what is going on—something about a hunter aspiring to win the hand of a woman, who he ends up shooting instead, to which Burroughs could certainly relate.
The bulk of the album seesaws between unsettling circus sounds and more developed ballads. In the spirit of Night On Earth, several songs are represented in separate instrumental and vocal forms, and often with dramatic results. For instance, “Gospel Train” appears first as a loping incline, then as a more frenetic track with an incongruous vocal and a wheezing sound effect. “Russian Dance” stomps along (indeed, as there’s a credit for five people on “boots”) and the “Boners” return for “Oily Night”, a song guaranteed to clear a room.
The actual songs stand out too. “I’ll Shoot The Moon” is nice and romantic, complete with a spoken monologue begging the object of his desire to call him; he even gives the phone number. “November” aptly sums up the crueler aspects of that month, while “The Briar And The Rose” is a love song that deserves better than the strangled delivery it gets here. Burroughs himself “sings” an oldie called “T’ain’t No Sin” (as in “to take off your skin and dance around in your bones”, while a marimba bops happily along), while Waits recites the man’s litany in “That’s The Way”. “Crossroads” pushes the plot again, Burroughs’ words equating the doomed hero’s destiny to that of a junkie. Something of a grand finale (if not an “Innocent When You Dream”-style singalong) is “Lucky Day”, with its schoolyard reminiscences and the sound advice in the middle: “when you get blue and you’ve lost all your dreams/There’s nothing like a campfire and a can of beans.”
Despite its eccentricities, The Black Rider is one of the more consistent Waits listens, in that it’s uniform in its weirdness. It’s not as repetitive as Night On Earth, while more distinct than Bone Machine. It succeeds, almost despite itself.

Tom Waits The Black Rider (1993)—3

1 comment:

  1. Holly Cole sings a wonderful cover of Waits' "The Briar And The Rose" on her "Temptation" album.

    Still enjoying your inciteful reviews.