On two new albums, Tom Waits walks the line between dark pop and theater.
Tom Waits is the anti-ABBA. The '70s superstars, like other disco-era fluff groups, are all close harmonies and bubbly beats, spinners of brightly lit escapist fantasies. Waits, on the other hand, can't really sing too well--generally he alternates between a scotch-and-soda growl and a passionate yelp--and the only escape offered in most of his songs is to the grave: "If I die before you wake," he sings on one of two new releases related to musical theater projects, "don't you cry, don't you weep: nothing is ever yours to keep." So is it any surprise that it's the songs of ABBA that have been packaged with a bow and placed on Broadway (in Mamma Mia!) and that no one is lining up at TKTS to see Waits's muddy dirges fleshed out with book and choreography?
No surprise, but a shame. Like other pop singers of expansive if dark imagination (c.f. Elvis Costello, Nick Cave, much of Bob Dylan), Waits's best work can be powerfully theatrical, and the man himself is a marvelously theatrical creature. He's been an actor for years (including a memorable turn as Renfield in Dracula); his albums Frank's Wild Years and Black Rider were both written and originally performed as musicals; his wife and frequent collaborator, Kathleen Brennan, is a playwright.
We will wait a long time for Waits on Broadway--though Costello is reportedly at work on a tuner with Neil LaBute--but Waits's two new releases are studio renderings of stage projects, both collaborations with Brennan intended for production by the avant-garde director Robert Wilson. Alice is the older project: In the early '90s, Wilson and the Waits/Brennan team dreamed up a piece about Lewis Carroll and the real-life little girl who inspired his books; it ran in Hamburg for 18 months but was never recorded until now. In 2000, Wilson returned to Waits for help with a production of Georg Buchner's modern classic Woyzeck, and the resulting score has morphed into Blood Money.
Both albums are classic Waits: bizarre, beautiful, uneven, intriguing, mesmerizing. The singer-songwriter lopes back and forth between rousing madhouse numbers, full of howled vocals and carnival instrumentation, and slow, dreamy ballads that are dark in tone but almost always hauntingly lyrical. Blood Money opens with a song from the former category, "Misery is the River of the World," which finds the singer intoning that "all the good in the world you can put inside a thimble / and there'll still be room for you and me." But it's not long before he's in a calmer mood, and "Coney Island Baby" trades the calliope for a contemplative trumpet, accompanying one of the great quiet love ballads by Waits or anyone: "She's a rose, she's a pearl, she's the spin on my world, all the stars make their wishes on her eyes..."
So, what do these songs have to do with Woyzeck? And what do Alice's songscapes have to do with Alice in Wonderland, besides the obvious narrative overlap of the title track and "We're All Mad Here?" It is possible, especially with Alice, to piece together direct narrative connections and to find the thread of a story; bBut neither album is really a score per se. In typical Waits fashion, individual songs tell individual stories and paint their own pictures, but the songs do not take us scene by scene through a larger narrative. (I haven't seen either Wilson production; presumably, more direct connections can be made by those who've viewed the works on stage.)
In a sense, Waits isn't making "theater music" any more than other great pop songwriters who fill their five-minute bursts of creativity with vivid characters. These albums drip drama from every song, and it's impossible to ignore the Brechtian influence on Waits' aesthetic. On Blood Money, especially, songs like "God's Away on Business" bring us to a world in which Mack the Knife would be very much at home: "Who are the ones that we keep in charge?" he hollers. "Liars, thieves and lawyers!" And the chorus of this number has that staccato push, that hypnotic, stop-start quality, that mesmerizing discordance...Kurt Weill would have loved it.