Tom Waits’ biggest problem has always been a tendency to romanticize the abyss. His claustrophobic night world — peopled with crusty old salts, whores with hearts of gold and three-time losers — is all margins and no center, a sentimental never land where grotesqueness isn’t merely accepted — it’s a badge of authenticity and hipness.
Predictably, Rain Dogs, Waits’ first LP since 1983’s Swordfish trombones, indulges these flaws too generously. Dramatic bohemian rhapsodies on insanity, deformity, night, rain and irretrievable loss crop up here frequently enough to satisfy even the most demanding middle-class seeker of the edge.
A handful of tracks emerge, however, from this nineteen-song, fifty-minute-plus mélange (sprawl being one of the perils of self-production) to take a place among the best work Waits has done. Prominent among these are the plaintive, accordion-tinged ballad “Time”; the nursery-rhyme-like Dr. John homage “Clap Hands”; “Downtown Train,” featuring G.E. Smith’s lovely, lyrical guitar; “Union Square,” where Keith Richards’ energetic rocking rescues Waits’ bluesy affectations; and the countryish “Blind Love,” which teams Keef (who also contributes some wailing background vocals straight out of the Appalachians) on guitar with Robert Quine.
When you add to these the touching “Hang Down Your Head” (cowritten by Waits’ Jersey-girl wife, Kathleen Brennan) and the straight, spare blues of “Gun Street Girl,” you have the core of what could have been the most consistent and wide-ranging record Waits ever made. But Rain Dogs insists on nosing its way around the barrooms and back alleys Waits has so often visited before. Until Waits can leash that impulse more successfully, he’ll have to be content to remain on the margins with his subjects.