Recording of July 1998: Beautiful Maladies

TOM WAITS: Beautiful Maladies
Island 314-524 519-2 (CD). 1998. Various prods., engs. AAD? TT: 74:00
Performance *****
Sonics ****?

Born in a moving taxicab (at least that's his story), famed for his greasy, growling vaudevillian piano-player performances, and now an actor who can tattoo the fly-scarfing Renfield in Dracula with eerie memorability, the many facets of Tom Waits can be summed up in one rare appellation: genius.

Of course, I'd put William Faulkner in that same category, which doesn't do a damned thing for his readability. Waits is similarly difficult and getting more so, a fact that explains why he's so adored by music aficionados and so nearly unknown or forgotten among the general populace. Add to that the facts that he hasn't toured in nearly 20 years and is notoriously reclusive (the Beautiful Maladies' press release ends with "And no, he isn't doing interviews") and you have a picture that adds up to the preeminent cult artist in all of popular music—so much so that interest in him has only grown, despite the fact that he's basically taken the last five years off from music.

This album—his first since 1993's Black Rider, the soundtrack to Waits' collaboration with director Robert Wilson and writer William Burroughs—was selected by Waits himself, with some input from the powers at Island. Unfortunately, everything here has been previously released. While it could have included more cuts from Rain Dogs and Swordfishtrombones, it's hard to argue with Waits of any kind. If you're willing to ride along with his aesthetic roller coaster, his artistic vision is so strong, so individualistic, that any Waits is consequential Waits.

For starters, there's his songwriting, which has grown increasingly austere as the years have passed. Basically a pop songwriter who took as his models Stephen Foster and George Gershwin (among others), Waits can also write gospel ("Jesus Will Be Here Soon") and wildman percussive rants (most of the rest of Bone Machine). While the majority opinion holds that Waits' finest songs can still be found on his early, Elektra albums ("Ol' 55," "The Heart of Saturday Night" "Jersey Girl," "Saving All My Love for You," to name just a few), a good argument can also be made for the more angular songs on his twin masterpieces for Island, Swordfishtrombones and Rain Dogs, represented here by four and five cuts, respectively.

Tunes like "Downtown Train" (perhaps the last great "straight" Waits tune), "Jockey Full of Bourbon"—even "16 Shells from a Thirty-Ought Six"—are Waits at his bad-boy beatnik best. Lyrically, Waits's tongue-twisting street poetry has always been laced with pungent epigrams like the Erasmus quote "In the land of the blind a one-eyed man is king" (from "Singapore"), or such telling images as "shiny black ravens on chimney smoke lane" (from "November").

Then there's his wretched, wounded, all-hell-and-trouble voice, which here goes from a tough-guy narration mode on "Hang On St. Christopher" or "Franks Wild Years" to a Weimar cabaret barker in "The Black Rider" to a whispery falsetto on "Temptation" to a malignant croak on "Earth Died Screaming." Despite all that, Waits has always been a magically sad if phlegmatic balladeer, as he proves here in "Johnsburg, IL" and "Good Old World Waltz."

Finally there's his skill as an arranger, which is another part of his talent that has grown more and more impenetrable. After the first two Island albums, Waits decided to forgo all efforts at accessibility, taking his music further out into reckless whim and complete and utter clanging. Asked to describe the music on Swordfishtrombones, Waits gnarred out that it was "junkyard orchestral deviation."

From then on, the accent has been on "junkyard"—the music has grown increasingly noisy, at times assaultively so. The arrangements have enhanced the mystery, featuring bare bones instrumentation, banging or metal scraping against metal pecussion, odd, hollow, tubular bell bonking, and, in the case of "November" from Black Rider, a spooky, theremin-like saw. Listening to Bone Machine songs like "Earth Died Screaming" (or the absent "Murder in the Red Barn") can be an unsettling experience, the music so drenched in noirish emotions and style, like the soundtrack to a black and white nightmare that's alternately set in the back of a seedy, conspiratorial Southeast Asian bar, or the cavernous expanse of some grim, rust-belt rolling mill.

Some of what's here—particularly the two live cuts, "Strange Weather" and "Cold, Cold Ground"—is startlingly well recorded, with the bass deep and solid and Waits's often howling vocals sounding natural and suitably jagged.

While it's easy to argue about the cuts that aren't here—Rain Dogs' "Blind Love" is a major omission—Waits is brilliant in any amount. Two questions for the future: When will someone (Rhino?) license all his material and come out with a comprehensive Waits boxed set? And is Beautiful Maladies the setup for a new Waits disc, or the final chapter?—Robert Baird