Tom Waits tells the same stories all the time — the small-time gangster who gets blown away by the big boys, the tough whore who sleeps with a torn-up teddy bear under her pillow, the barely employed sucker who spends his spare time and puny paycheck at the local saloon — but he makes each one sound different. That’s why he’s a great storyteller.
On Blue Valentine, the small-time gangster dies in a movie-theater balcony with a bullet in his heart and Cagney on the screen (“Romeo Is Bleeding”). The tough whore writes from jail that she wishes she had all the money she’d spent on dope because then she’d buy a used-car lot and drive a different car each day (“Christmas Card from a Hooker in Minneapolis”). The barfly gets valentines he can’t cope with every year from an old girlfriend (“Blue Valentines”). The general ideas are old hat, but the details — “There’s a dark huddle at the bus stop/Umbrellas arranged in a sad bouquet” or “The ghost of your memory is the thistle in the kiss” — are priceless.
Would that Waits’ music were that resourceful. His melodies tend toward standard bluesy riffs and endless piano vamps, while his singing is sometimes reduced to a mere gurgle of phlegm in the back of his throat. Yet the deterioration of his voice and the lugubriousness of his tunes aren’t anything new. True, they make the album hard to listen to, but sometimes you can tune out the voice and you can always stick with the lyric sheet.
On the whole, though, Blue Valentine is as solid a record as Waits has made. While there’s nothing quite as snappy and funny as “Step Right Up,” there’s nothing as overblown and pretentious as “Potter’s Field” either. And the LP’s best cuts — “Christmas Card from a Hooker in Minneapolis,” the title track, “$29.00” — rank high among the sentimental sagas that contain Tom Waits’ strongest writing.