Tom Waits, Blue Valentine
Anti-heroes and dumb-luck losers populate Waits' irresistible 6th album
Tom Waits' characters aren't the kind of saps to wrap their gums around a cheap and easy word like love. In "Kentucky Avenue," an idealistic derelict creatively comes on to his crippled sweetie: "Let me tie you up in kite string," he suggests, "and I'll show you the scabs on my knee." The anti-heroine of "Christmas Card from a Hooker in Minneapolis" builds a fantastic scaffold of lies to impress a loyal former john before confessing the truth in the final verse: "I need to borrow money to pay this lawyer and Charlie, hey/I'll be eligible for parole come Valentine's Day." "Wrong Side of the Road," a burlesque blues number embellished with saxophone and organ, is the world's most deranged marriage proposal. "We'll do 100 miles an hour spendin' someone else's dough," Waits promises his lucky moll. "We'll drive all the way to Reno on the wrong side of the road."
Waits' sixth album is easy to overlook — caught between the peaks of his early crooner phase and the avant-garde theatrical clatter of his 1983 reinvention Swordfishtrombones, it offers subtler charms and a more brooding tone than his benchmarks. But just because he's not known for understatement doesn't mean he can't pull it off. "Blue Valentines" is a guitar-and-voice jazz ballad modeled on Julie's London's low-key 1955 hit "Cry Me a River"; "$29.00," about the slow and steady ruination of an innocent arrival in Hollywood, is one of the nastiest sagas in his catalog, but he sings it without breaking a sweat. That is, until the fade out, when he backs away from the mike and lets rip with a couple of "ay-yi-yi"'s and an inexplicable "cuckoo." But these are borderline inaudible and barely count.