Out There

Tom's wild years

Beautiful Maladies
Tom Waits
Island Records

There's a small cadre of cultists who argue over whether Tom Waits' Elektra/Asylum years or his Island stint best defines him, and theirs is an argument that takes place in a vacuum. Fact is, there's little difference between Stephen Sondheim croaks wrapped in blue valentines and brown liquors, and drunken cabaret-noir masquerading as art-blues-rock--Waits' idea of a melody is the sound made when you pass out on the keys. Whether writing "songs" on albums such as Small Change and The Heart of Saturday Night or taming chaos on Swordfishtrombones and Franks Wild Years, Waits celebrated a world where it was always last call, the whores were romantics deep down, and Jesus drove brand-new Fords. When he went to Island, he simply stopped finding stale romance and cheap humor in the bottom of a bottle; he got older, got wiser, and his music got leaner, edgier. Beauty turned to danger--hope, to desperation.

Beautiful Maladies is the angular, angry Waits, though it's hard to call the collection a best-of when it's culled only from his years spent on Island; hard to call it a greatest-hits when it includes anything from 1993's The Black Rider, his dour, capital-A art collaboration with William Burroughs for the German theater. It's actually a contract-killer, Waits' farewell to the label where he shed his boozy, woozy jazzbo excesses and passed out in his own vomit between the muddy cracks of Tin Pan Alley; it's full of songs even the casual completist already owns, and it would make a decent enough introduction for the novice if anyone gives a shit anymore, that is.

The disc tells its dead-end story in a random, incomplete fashion: It begins with two songs from Franks Wild Years, steps back toward Rain Dogs (a self-contained masterpiece all by itself), leaps forward to The Black Rider, and so forth. It cuts apart and pastes together albums originally bound by concept and theme and demands you accept the chaotic "Earth Died Screaming" and the poignant "Johnsburg, Illinois" and the rollicking "Jockey Full of Bourbon" as pieces of the same fuzzy puzzle. Which is possible, to a point: "Downtown Train" never quite fit into the whole of Rain Dogs anyway, and it survives the transition better than anything else--mostly because it's the worst thing on here.

But you can't reduce Waits to the sum of his songs: What makes Franks Wild Years work is its end-of-the-world fervor, and Bone Machine was a remarkably complete record, the sound made when ruin and redemption collide with electric guitars. Waits doesn't write singles; he crafts small-scale sagas to be heard--absorbed--in their entirety, and in the end, listening to Beautiful Maladies is like reading a novel with the chapters out of order.

--Robert Wilonsky


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