Between 1993 and 1999, the defiantly individual Tom Waits seemingly disappeared from the recording industry. Rumors abounded that he was too busy with films or some strange hobby. The latter, it turned out, was accurate; Tom Waits had discovered modern opera.
He had already successfully collaborated with avant-garde director Robert Wilson on Black Rider, which used text and performance by William Burroughs. But it seemed a less intuitive match when Wilson and Waits paired up for a deeply Freudian version of Alice in Wonderland. The resulting production, Alice, ended up awing critics in Europe and North America, but without Tom Waits in the cast - he merely wrote the music - no album was released.
Because I have seen three separate productions of Alice by the original company, Waits' recent solo album of songs from the show comes as a bit of a shock to my ears. These are creaky lyrical tunes that have an extroverted quality not often found in Waits's solo work. Typical of his music, skeleton armies of percussion bolster a jazz club combo. And the lyrics that Waits drives over his gravel road of a voice accurately convey the sense of innocence lost without nostalgia. But no amount of performing by Waits will ever equal the sight of an phallic, undulating caterpillar expanding to fill the entire stage during the number "Table Top Joe." (And sadly, one of the funniest songs from the show, "Altar Boy," with its timely tale of religious debauchery, isn't included on the album.)
Almost a decade later, Waits and Wilson joined forces again for another opera based on the play Woyzeck. For the solo album release of the music, Waits wisely changed the title to Blood Money, but left the music's acidic despair intact. These are songs in the old Waits vein, full of grief joined with madness. From the lines "If there's one thing you can say / About Mankind / There's nothing kind about man," to "If I die before you wake / Don't you cry; don't you weep / Nothing's ever yours to keep / Close your eyes; go to sleep," Blood Money is a dark album propelled by raucous music. And as mariaci cornets and klezmer clarinets wail over the discordant circus sounds, one can take comfort in the notion that even when the world goes to hell, we'll at least have Tom Waits along with us, gleeful and wise, for the ride.