On Heartattack and Vine, the patron saint of America’s hobo hipsters returns to the sentimental ballad style he abandoned for jazzier, less song-oriented turf after The Heart of Saturday Night. Though Tom Waits’ new album sports its share of slinky blues vamps, it’s the tear-jerkers that really matter. Lyrically, “Jersey Girl” conjures up Bruce Springsteen’s world, then adds an arrangement that echoes the Drifters’ “Spanish Harlem.” But the tune’s eager romanticism becomes warped in the caldron of what’s left of Waits’ voice. In the six years since The Heart of Saturday Night, the artist’s vocals have deteriorated from gruff drawls into hoarse and sometimes ghastly gargles that make the very effort of drawing breath seem a life-and-death proposition.
“Saving All My Love for You,” “Ruby’s Arms” and “On the Nickel” boast the same morbid pathos as “Jersey Girl.” With their wistful folk-pop melodies and Fifties film-score orchestrations, they suggest the pop-song equivalents of hand-tinted antique post cards. Or at least that’s what the singer’s down-and-out delivery turns them into. Of course, Tom Waits’ derelict-poet-saint, gazing up from the gutter to find a rainbow, is an assumed character. Yet it’s only partly an act. For almost a decade, Waits has submerged his own personality and played this role so completely that he’s now a willing surrogate for all the low-life dreamers who don’t have his gift of gab.
But in a time when hipness is often equated with selfishness, Waits’ woozy, far-out optimism has never seemed fresher. While he can be faulted on many counts — the godawful condition of his voice, his perverse love for dime-store kitsch imagery — the purity of his intentions is never in question: Tom Waits finds more beauty in the gutter than most people would find in the Garden of Eden. If his lack of objectivity has kept him from developing into a major artist, Waits’ indivisibility from his self-created persona makes him a unique and lovable minor talent.