For a guy who operates in self-imposed exile from this business we call show — going an eternity between albums, even longer between tours — Tom Waits knows how to make an entrance. In the first line of “Poor Edward,” a tall tale of satanic possession and suicide on Alice, one of his two new records, Waits devours the victim’s name with Shakespearean relish, stretching it out in a malignant growl, like a burned-out coroner showing you the dead body with a tired sweep of his arm. Waits’ ravaged voice surrendered all pretensions to melody ages ago; his throat is now pure theater, a weapon of pictorial emphasis and raw honesty.
Appropriately, Alice and Blood Money feature songs written by Waits and his wife, Kathleen Brennan, for a pair of stage collaborations with dramatist Robert Wilson: 1992’s Alice, based on the sexual obsessions of the Victorian author Lewis Carroll, and 2000’s Woyzeck, adapted from the nineteenth-century German play about a soldier driven to lunacy and murder. This is fertile darkness for Waits, who excels at putting a human face on the bizarre and finding redemptive cheer in flophouse woe. Except for the bodiless piano-playing hands in Alice‘s “Table Top Joe,” Waits keeps the outright freaks to a minimum. Instead, he turns his scarred baritone and gallows wit to straight talk on deep shit.
Blood Money is especially grim, a bitter suite about greed and moral bankruptcy. “If there is one thing you can say/About mankind/There’s nothing kind about man,” Waits snaps in the bleak circus hop, “Misery Is the River of the World.” In the rattling jig “God’s Away on Business,” the dancing is all done on suckers’ graves. Alice is just as macabre in its details of destructive lust. But there are flickers of hope, too, such as “Fish and Bird,” a soft waltz about a love that defies reason and natural order, sung by Waits in an old salt’s croon.
Written as theatrical scores, these records bloom on their own. They are also testaments to Waits’ gift for making tangible magic from odd clatter: dusky strings, mooing horns, ancient keyboards. The atmospheres around his voice are so vivid you feel like you’re there with him in the diesel-scented fog of Alice‘s “Lost in the Harbour,” or burning both your asses on the fire and brimstone all over Blood Money. “Everything you think of is true,” Waits declares on Alice in that 3-D cough. For him, none of this is mere show.