Just when it seemed that Los Angeles' premier bar casualty could not get any weirder, on his 15th album, Tom Waits teams up with beat writer William Burroughs (who turns up on one song) to score a 19th-century opera. The 20 tracks, written for director Robert Wilson's re-vision of The Black Rider, back the twisted Faustian tale with dark and wickedly funny melodies. (Onstage, the songs are performed by actors, though it's hard to imagine these sick numbers done by anyone other than Waits.)
From his first gutter-folk album (Closing Time, from 1973) to last year's experimental masterpiece, Bone Machine, Waits' work has grown consistently stronger, more ambitious and less self-conscious. The Black Rider continues that tradition. Its songs offer the morbid excitement of a ride on a decrepit old Tilt-a-Whirl.
The rich, dizzying tunes incorporate graveyard fright noises, bizarre piano sounds and creepy sci-fi whistles into traditional, orchestrated Fiddler on the Roof-style melodies. A clanking, tin-can beat lurches through the material like a frantic Ichabod Crane, while disturbing violin and contorted blasts of French horn trudge along like drunken, determined sailors.
Waits' wrenching, lounge-loser vocals hawk in ragged, carney-style tones; love songs consist of lines like "I want to build/A nest in your hair." Burroughs' voice hobbles through on his one track like a crotchety passerby — "T'ain't no sin to take off your skin/And dance around in your bones," he moans in a sexier moment — while in others the evil chatter and whining of anonymous tormented souls exude a hysterically pathetic quality.
Although this odd, operatic collaboration with Burroughs and Wilson does not completely fit in with the whiskey-and-bar-stool concept of Waits' previous albums, it does continue his intriguing expansion into more surreal realms. His dervishlike approach to The Black Rider makes you gawk like a freakshow spectator in fear, fascination and delight.