ot long ago, I wrote a review for the now defunct Electronic Music Reviews website expressing my belief that Tom Waits has had as much to do with the development of creative electronic music as anyone else. Well, at the time, I thought I was stretching things a bit--after all, Tom Waits ain't Kraftwerk. However, now that Waits has released two simultaneous albums on the Epitaph sub-label Anti-, now that he has suddenly captured the attention of musicians and music fans all over the place and has found his name and face on loads of music magazines, I'm starting to think I was on to something when I linked him with my favorite little corner of the music world. Sure, Waits thumps out a song on an acoustic bass, a horn section, and his own raspy, demented voice rather than a synth, a computer, and a host of effects processers. Sure, Waits wouldn't be caught dead at a rave or (probably) even at Mutek. But Waits is still an essential artist for anyone interested in music, and at least one of his two new works, Blood Money (the other one is called Alice), is particularly relevant to readers familiar with only electronic music nowadays, if only because Waits approach to music mirrors the approach taken by so many of the most interesting and intelligent electronic artists around today.
Tom Waits emerged from the slums of Los Angeles back in the 1970s, back when the biggest compliment for an artist was to be labeled a "singer and songwriter." This was shortly after the demise of Tin Pan Alley, and the idea of a musician NOT writing his or her own songs was unthinkable in this era. Waits wrote his own songs, of course, but he recorded them in much the same way that other singer/songwriters (James Taylor, Carole King, Paul Simon) recorded theirs. However, Waits' songs always seemed out of place in that placid, "Hotel California" decade. His voice was too harsh (even harsher than Dylan's), and his lyrics were odd, filled with eccentric characters and funny (if demented) situations (as the title, "Christmas Card From A Hooker In Minneapolis," clearly attests). And even though his lyrics were as wonderfully demented then as they are now, the music on his 70s work is just too conventional--too simple, too dull, too dated. It wasn't until the 1980s and Swordfishtrombones that Waits found a way to fit his music to his messages, and that "way" was, basically, to go outside the boundaries of rock and folk and incorporate musical elements from a variety of other genres: early country music, ragtime, vaudeville, New Orleans jazz, swing, exotica, salsa, flamenco, early blues, torch songs of Edith Piaf and Marlene Dietrich, and the expressionist music of Kurt Weill. Waits also experimented with rhythms, shying away from traditional drums in favor of a bricolage approach, which included trash can lids, brake drums, megaphones, chairs, and even tubas. Waits' music, in short, from the early 80s to today, has managed to be as interesting and as experimental as his songwriting has always been.
Waits sets himself above his peers because of his attention to sound, his willingness to experiment with instrumentation and with effects, and his desire to put all this experimentation into a framework that is, at heart, very traditional, very popular. Listen to Blood Money and you'll hear all of this and then some. The work was composed by Waits and his wife, Kathleen Brennan, for a production of an unfinished play by the 19th century German dramatist Georg Büchner entitled Woyzek. I've not read the play, but it is apparently about a German man who goes crazy after doing medical experiments for money and killing his girlfriend when he thinks he sees her sleeping with someone else. You don't need to know about the play in order to enjoy the disk, but it's interesting nonetheless, and it does help explain some of the narrative structure here (and some of the song titles, such as "Knife Chase" and "Another Man's Vine"). Still, even though the lyrics on Blood Money are excellent--as usual for Waits--what's significant about this disk, and what makes it essential listening for even an electronic music fan, is the music itself, especially the way the eclectic instrumentation blends with Waits' voice and creates a aural landscape of decay, paranoia, and carnivalesque nightmares (nightmares echoed in the lyrics).
An excellent example of this is the second track, "Everything Goes to Hell." Using traditional instruments like guitar, bass, and sax with more atypical instruments like bongos, timpani, chamberlains, and an accordion, Waits creates a rather unusual mood here, sort of a cross between New Orleans, Kurt Weill, and Esquivel. Add to this Waits himself--his creepy-crawly voice that becomes an instrument in its own right as it slurrs words in one bar, shouts them in the next, growls and then whispers them in another--and you have a song that literally sounds like a Disneyland ride through hell, complete with a mysterious, creepily "exotic" atmosphere and a devil as MC. Or take "Knife Chase," an instrumental track that could fit perfectly into the underground chase scene in The Third Man, with a sax melody looping around heavy beats and guitars. The music, here, is very different from "Hell," but the instrumentation here echoes the mood Waits is trying to convey: panic, confusion, desperation, pain, death. It is this attention to mood, this willingness on Waits' part to change the sound of songs to fit their contexts, that sets this disk apart from just about every other popular recording you're likely to hear this year.
Blood Money is probably one of Waits best works--right up there with Rain Dogs, in my opinion. It's more intersting than its companion, Alice, because it is more musical and lyrically more interesting (though others seem to prefer Alice). Both works, though, are exceptional achievements for an artist who seems to be getting more intersting as he gets older. Frankly, most artists who have been around as long as Waits has spend the latter parts of their careers on the "oldies" circuit, raking in the cash by repeating the triumphs of their youths. Waits deserves credit for not resting on his past, on using his talent, the talent of his collaborators, and the resources of his studio to continually feed his imagination and come up with sounds that fit the emotional roller-coasters of his lyrics. More importantly, Waits deserves to be heard, not only because this is damn fantastic music but because he embodies the very spirit of experimentation.
Reviewed by: Michael Heumann
Reviewed on: 2003-09-01