Glitter and Doom Live
(thru Shock Records)
This is a catch-up review of an album released late last year.
Listening to the new live Tom Waits album I really became confused about how seriously to take it. Or rather him. I genuinely wondered whether I should just join the happy throng of critical acclaim and the long line of those who long ago decided that Waits is some sort of untouchable genius, or whether what we had here was a case of the Emperor’s new clothes. I mean, listen to that voice! He’s taking the piss, right?
None of which means I don’t like Tom Waits: far from it. During the late 70s and early 80s I probably listened to as much of his stuff as I did another other single artist, proselytized on his behalf, saw him in concert, and was all round mesmerised by his musical hobo shtick, his breathtakingly gorgeous songs, and yes, his voice. God, I am even one of the few people who still considers One From the Heart (on which Waits duets with Crystal Gayle) one of the great movie soundtracks and have foisted it upon friends with a lecture about it being one of the most under-appreciated albums of all time. So don’t give me any grief about the depth of my Waits’ bone fides.
But it seems to me that an artist has to change and the way that Waits chose to do that was to go deeper inside the character and personna that he created for himself — the down-on-his luck gutter dweller with a million stories to tell — but that just maybe, instead of that being the route to artistic growth it is has turned into a musical cul-de-sac from which he can’t escape.
Now, this interpretation flies in the face of how Waits himself sees his development, so I don’t want to say I know better than him; but I do think I can make a case. I’m really talking about the transition between his albums from the 70s to the out-of-box 1983 album, Swordfishtrombones and those that followed. It is around this time that Waits came under the overt influence of various musical pioneers, most substantially, Captain Beefheart and Harry Partch. In his recent biography of Waits, Barney Hoskins notes that Waits had become disillusioned with the direction he was going:
Like most uncompromising sing-songwriters of the decade just past — Dylan, Young, Bowie and others — Waits decided it was time to reinvent himself, to shake off everything he’d stood for. It was time for a break, a bloodless coup that would dispense with all the safety nets: Herb Cohen, Bones Howe, Chuck E. Weiss, and the old Tropicana/Troubadour crew, maybe even Electra-Asylum Records. The baby might get thrown out with the bathwater, but it was that or rest on what scant laurels he could claim…
Thinking back to his first albums, he realized he’d lived his life in reverse, starting out as a cautious old man before entering a radical middle age. By the time he was physically old, he figured, he might regain the innocence and intuitiveness of childhood. “I hatched out of this egg I was living in,” he said, lokking back on this time. “I’d nailed one foot to the floor and kept going in circles, making the same record.”
Those who love Waits’ seventies albums as much as I do will take issue with this statement, yet the fact remains that up to this point Waits had borrowed a bunch of styles and mannerisms…and jumbled together his voice and style. However great the songs were, to his ears they were derivative, unoriginal….
The new Waits [sic] music, which began taking shape in 1982, was fashioned out of diverse and disparate ingredients. Written substantially in a feverish two-week spurt on a second visit to Ireland, the tracks that came to make up Swordfishtrombones followed a rough narrative trajectory.
All of this (and in fact, that entire chapter of the book) strikes me as incredibly revealing. While it is easy to see and acknowledge that he moved in another direction, that the influences mentioned above did cause him to rethink the sort of music he was making, and that the albums produced do, in fact, break new and interesting ground, it just seems so obvious that, for all their newness and originality, that this new direction has become as much of a endless loop as the one he was trying to escape. Isn’t the foot still nailed to the floor, even if it is a different room? Far from “throwing the baby out with the bathwater”, as suggested above, hadn’t he just lifted the baby into a new bath, albeit one with a lot of extra plumbing?
And in fact, when you look at the lyrics it isn’t even so clear that he moved on that much. Lyrically, Waits is still lost in the low-end bohemia that characterised his earlier work, the world of down-and-out bums and circus freaks and the rest of the cast.
This album is a beautifully produced collection of later-era Waits songs as well as an entire “bonus compendium entitled Tom Tales, which is a selection of the comic bromides, strange musings and unusual facts that Tom traditionally shares with his audience during the piano set.”
So is the Emperor naked? Do I want to call bullshit on the whole production? Sort of, but a few things stop me. First up, the songs are seriously good. As in, well-crafted, meaningful, clever and even catchy. There is nothing bullshitty about them. But they are also relentless. They pound away at you and make demands that I don’t think they really need to make. The first three songs blast out and it is like being caught in a car accident. As another reviewer noted, one who was much more in love with the album than I am:
The music is ragged as Hell, puncturing to the ears and synapses, and is definitely not for the weak kneed. Waits rips the melodies to shreds, upends the percussion and generally slurs, yelps and howls like William S. Burroughs heading into a bad night of the DTs
Some people are into that, and this reviewer goes on to note that, “… given all of that, the music is inexplicably beautiful, uplifting and life affirming as inside of every song, like an old fakir lying on a bed of nails, Waits gathers flowers from the garbage to create silk purses from sow’s ears.”
That’s the bit I’m not so sure I agree with any more. Or rather, I agree that the songs are very often special, but I think I’m really over the “slurs, yelps, and howls” and kinda just wish he would sing. This is a feeling that is utterly reinforced when we get past those first three tracks and get to track four, the sublime, ‘Fannin Street’. I can’t help but wish that he reigned himself in a bit more often.
So look, I know that for many Waits can do no wrong and such people are welcome to ignore all my misgivings. For the rest of you, however, those who might be considering getting this album as maybe a way of catching up with an artist you haven’t thought about for a while, then I reckon you should know what you are getting into.
As I say, beautifully produced, some stunning songs, and the band is stupendous. I just don’t think I want to listen to it.