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Go Ask Alice

With two new releases, Tom Waits travels ever farther down the rabbit hole of his imagination -- and our American past

Americans make dismal historians. Most of us can't name our own great-grandparents, much less offer a coherent explanation for the decline of the Roman Empire.

Perversely, this amnesiac regard for the past has become a manifestation of national pride. Unlike, say, England -- a country still wringing money from druids, for God's sake -- the United States has few monuments. And why should we? Americans rode to the moon via technical innovation, not sentimentality. We are a nation of transplants, a country of iconoclasts, and though we spill our share of milk, we spend little time crying over it.

Inevitably, though, all this future boosterism becomes both tiring and terribly unromantic. There's only so long you can fly headlong into the promise of tomorrow before you start to wonder about the stuff that's already sailed past.

Tom Waits is back, sooty as ever, from rooting through the dustbin of history.
Tom Waits is back, sooty as ever, from rooting through the dustbin of history.

For college students, this hazy nostalgia expresses itself principally through thrift-store clothes and the occasional Robert Doisneau poster of post-World War II Paris. Thirtysomethings tend to take their personal archaeology a step further, tackling jazz, religion and the age-old mysteries of childbirth. Fortysomethings start buying antiques and sports cars. And hipsters of all ages discover Tom Waits.

The groundbreaking Swordfishtrombonesalbum (1983), in which he abandoned his singer-songwriter balladry and proto-lounge warble for something darker and more theatrical, turned Waits into alternative music's Ancient One. He's now known as a wild-haired soothsayer able to slip through the portals of time and return, sooty and raving, with haunted stories of a lost industrial age. His voice -- gruff as a mule-team driver and old as God -- harks back to a time of bellowing accordions, shadowy wharves and dangerous, limitless possibility. For busy bohemians, putting on a record like Waits's Franks Wild Years is an easy way to bathe in the romance of an enchanted and unsettling past without having to contend with a tiresome array of footnotes and source materials.

Two weeks ago, the historically challenged hit pay dirt, as Anti-Records releases two new atmospheric excavations from Waits and his longtime collaborator (and wife), Kathleen Brennan: the superlative Alice and the less alluring but worthwhile Blood Money.

Composed in 1992, the songs on Alice formed the backbone of a Robert Wilson-directed musical exploring the relationship between Charles Dodgson (a.k.a. Lewis Carroll) and Alice Liddell, the young girl who inspired Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass. The musical ran for 18 months at Hamburg's Thalia Theater in the early '90s, but Waits didn't get around to recording the songs until last summer.

It was worth the wait. Alice is, in short, a revelation. The 15 songs, a hodgepodge of accordion- and piano-flush ballads and Waits's trademark graveyard jump-jazz, form his most tender work since 1977's Foreign Affairs.

The record opens with the titular tune, in which Waits's lead character, Dodgson, sounds like one of the hopeless barflies who populated his early albums. Trying in vain to exorcise the memories of a long-gone love, Dodgson sings a drunken dedication as smooth as the now-frozen pond where he and Alice spent their summers together: "I must be insane to go skating on your name / By tracing it twice / I fell through the ice of Alice."

Most of Alice unfolds through Dodgson's laments about his beloved, many of them sung in the stricken, disbelieving voice of an admirer forced to watch the object of his affection go on without him. "From a window across the lawn I watched you undress / Moving in a yellow bedroom light," he confesses in "Watch Her Disappear."

Waits has always had a knack for poetry, but the story of a shy mathematician and his preadolescent muse seems to have stirred the songwriter to new heights. The lyrics on rough-hewn ballads like "Lost in the Harbour" and "Barcarolle" -- which contain the unforgettable images of waterlogged sheep in icy seas and a ghost wrapped, contented and warm, around a dollar in a young girl's pocket -- unfold with a deliberate, surprising beauty, like priceless treasures being pulled from a castaway wooden crate.

Of course it wouldn't be a Tom Waits album without a couple of braying freaks. Without explanation, we get to meet Poor Edward, a man with a woman's face ruinously attached to the back of his head, and Table Top Joe, a Coney Island sideshow curiosity who takes the music world by storm despite his lack of a torso.

Apart from these occasional swerves under the circus tent and a few primeval tangos, the songs on Alice are mostly of an introspective sort. This superb balance of hot summer emotion and autumnal regret is what separates the disc from Blood Money, the other of Waits's works released this month.

Blood Money takes its inspiration from Woyzeck, an 1836 drama by German playwright Georg Büchner that received the Danish version of the Tony Award for best musical when Robert Wilson directed it in 2000. In the play, a poor soldier is abused by humanity and cuckolded by his love, eventually murdering his girlfriend before heading off to kill himself. The material is decidedly dark, and Waits makes sure to capture every grisly twist and turn. But while Blood Money's gloomy pall serves Büchner's material well, the monochromatic mood just can't compare to Alice, with its vivid exhumation of a 150-year-old fairy tale and the tangled biographies it contains.

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