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Wednesday, June 19, 2002

HIGH NOTES

Tom Waits: 'Alice' and 'Blood Money'


On paper, Tom Waits' two new albums, "Alice" and "Blood Money," don't look promising. Without yet listening to them and knowing they were originally written for European theater pieces staged by avant-garde director Robert Wilson, they prompt one of two reactions: Here is obviously another misguided attempt at high art like 1993's "The Black Rider," also done for Wilson; or, maybe this is merely a stall until Waits and his co-writer, Kathleen Brennan, can come up with a real album.

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But the two records turn out to be the first thoroughly satisfying realizations of the musical ideas that Waits and Brennan started exploring on 1982's "Swordfishtrombones." The albums they've released since then have contained many excellent songs, but they could never quite dispel the notion that the Waits-Brennan musical partnership was a never-ending experiment, what with their use of pre-rock pop forms, rusty keyboards and kitchen-sink percussion, not to mention Waits' total reliance on the unattractive limits of his phlegmy vocal instrument.

These elements are still in evidence on the new records, but they have finally coalesced into a real style. "Alice," which is the score to a play about Lewis Carroll, is melodically assured and stuffed to the brim with compelling metaphors. "Blood Money," based on Georg Buchner's German modernist play "Woyzeck," is no less compelling for its angular cabaret music and deathly depressing themes.

Others will debate their relevance as literature, but taken as song collections the two discs prove that Waits' only competition as a character-driven songwriter is Randy Newman. Even if one didn't know that the protagonist of "Alice" is a middle-aged man tormented by his love for a prepubescent girl, the songs paint a heartbreaking portrait of a soul tortured by unrequited love. On almost every track, the singer confronts his phantom lover only in dreams. "I'll always pretend you're mine," he sings with leaden discomfort on the wistful "Fish & Bird."

"Blood Money" plumbs a more material hell. Woyzeck, a barber, kills his unfaithful wife and then drowns while searching for the murder weapon. These plot elements are virtually buried in the songs, but one easily gets Buchner's point about the human capacity for suffering and making others suffer. "Everybody row!" Waits cries in that indelible croak of his, "Misery is the river of the world."

"Blood Money's" desperation is in contrast to "Alice's" melancholy, but the extreme sentiments that both works display no longer sound like a parody of the musical and literary forms that Waits and Brennan have plundered for the past two decades. "Blood Money," for instance, trades in Weimar music-hall cliches as a way of de-romanticizing the material: This is music from a time when entertainers were the scum of the earth. Both records prove that art and commerce are not mutually exclusive, since they are currently ensconced on Billboard's Top 100 Album Chart. There's hope for Western Civilization yet.



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