It always feels genuine, or rather, his delicate balancing-act means you let him get...
Dan Hill 2002-11-20
Tom Waits' Alice is a wonderfully balanced record about an unbalanced mind. Veering, almost in sequence, between wistful ballads and shakin', rattlin', rollin' tubthumpers, "Alice" is arranged and performed to perfection.
Like the simultaneous Blood Money, this is previously unrecorded music from an opera production by Waits, his wife Kathleen Brennan, and longtime collaborateur ("The Black RIder") avant-garde theatre director Robert Wilson, from their 1992 Alice, which explored the obsessive relationship between Lewis Carroll and the little girl who inspired Alice in Wonderland, Alice Liddell.
At first glance, you'd be forgiven for thinking that a story of Alice in Wonderland's creator would be the gentler record of Waits' double-whammy. But this is Waits World; a land where little is what it seems at first. The first track further lulls you a false sense of security; a lovely, candle-flickering tune, drums brushed around a breathy sax and gently chiming vibes. But the feeling that this might be closer to David Lynch than Stan Getz is quickly confirmed with "Everything You Can Think", hot on its heels. All Mexican border town edginess, a demented waltz careening around the fairground looking for a fight, Waits' aural Hall of Mirrors hemmed in by blowing smokestacks and puffing, wheezing steam trains, his voice suddenly transmogrified from reassuring whisper into scabrous, growling barks. Then comes "Flower's Grave", a sentimental song so naively sweet as to wonder about the funeral arrangements of flowers. Yet Waits is one of a select few balladeers who can get away with plain-speaking declarations of love and whimsical, sugary arrangements. It always feels genuine, or rather, his delicate balancing-act means you let him get away with it, time after time.
And so it continues, breathtakingly lovely ditties countered by galumphing, sinister songs of Hell and nightmares and full moons, where everybody is either six feet under or heading that way at a rate of knots. "Kommienezuspadt" is utterly extraordinary, Waits revelling in a funky German accent, slavering over his raunchy rock'n'roll band as if they were a korps of George Grosz-etched Weimar Berliners, suddenly risen from the grave. By the same token, "Poor Edward" is a dark fairy tale to frighten the children, yet this time pegged up on a washing line of achingly bare violin.
Credit should also go to Kathleen Brennan, as Waits repeatedly states, describing how her initial inspirations are then realised by his musical instincts. This time round, those instincts lead him in predictably unpredictable directions, employing bizarre instrumentation and some inspired arrangements. Little or no guitar is evident - strange, given how brilliantly Waits has used the likes of Marc Ribot in the past. But the "skeleton chamber orchestra", as Waits describes it, is so beautifully balanced that the thought of what Ribot can do doesn't even occur. So whilst regular sax cohort Ralph Carney is also not present and incorrect, the frontline of Matt Brubeck, Bebe Risenfors, Colin Stetson, Carla Kihlstedt, Ara Anderson and Nic Phelps eradicates any sense of loss. Theirs is a swaggering, unruly gait; a mini-Mingus band, blues and roots and lord knows what else.
Whether we learn much specific information about Carroll and Liddell's relationship is neither here nor there - I'm just happy to be along for the ride. Either way, Wilson, Brennan and Waits have conjured a vivid impressionistic portrait of dark obsession and childhood innocence, and as ol' Tom says, "conformity is a fool's paradise".
What he's done here outstrips the fine but slight Mule Variations, which had something of a Waits-by-numbers feel. This, and Blood Money, are both unequivocally inspired, unique, and impossibly good. Awesome, scary, tender, funny, lovable and foreboding, often in the space of a few minutes. Only Tom Waits can do this.