TOM WAITS The Black Rider (Island)

A bit of background required here. "The Black Rider" consists of songs Tom Waits wrote for a German production of the play of the same name, taken from William Burroughs' texts. Consequently, unlike most of Waits' albums over the decade, which always sounded like soundtracks in search of a film, this was written with a definite purpose in mind. Unsurprisingly it's good, if challenging, stuff: musically it sounds like Brecht and Captain Beefheart covering "Swordfishtrombones" in a steelworks, and Waits' lyrics make more sense than usual when shackled to a storyline. All the ingredients are present to make it his best album yet, but...I don't know. I like it a lot, but I don't play it very often. At twenty tracks and almost an hour it's hard going, and despite the inclusion of a ballad or three there's only so much clanging an ear can take, despite the offbeat excellence of "Russian Dance" (exactly what it claims to be, with added lurching), the title track, "November", "T'aint No Sin", which features William Burroughs' own fractured drawl, "That's The Way" and "Oily Night". There's just too much to chew on, but it wouldn't surprise me if time and familiarity made this his best yet.

TOM WAITS Mule Variations (Anti/Epitaph)

In which Tom Waits signs to an indie label, releases his first album for six years and gathers up critical acclaim by the bucketful, of which this review is pretty much bound to be another example. Some commentators have suggested that "Mule Variations" sweeps up all the styles expertly handled by Waits during his nearing thirty year recording career - chiefly the broken-down barroom bum pianist who lives in a motel room, and the avant-garde composer who fashions Beefheartian opera out of other people's scrap metal - but for me "Mule Variations" seems to till similar ground to 1992's "Bone Machine" album.

There are two types of song here: there's the clanging, banging, repetitive, rhythmic numbers like opener "Big In Japan", "Cold Water" and "Filipino Box Spring Hog", where Waits growls like an apocalyptic old testament preacher whilst his band conjure up all manner of fire and brimstone behind him, and the melodic, swooping, heartfelt ballads such as "Hold On" and "Take It With Me", fully deserving their place in the same canon as the likes of "Martha", "Ruby's Arms", "Johnsburg, Illinois" or...well, insert the name of your favourite Tom Waits love song here, because there are moments on "Mule Variations" that match it, whatever it may be.

All the eighteen songs here can be located between those two polar opposites to some degree, with the exception of the narrative "What's He Building?", in which an outraged but curious neighbourhood observes the activities of one of their number with horrified fascination: "He has subscriptions to those magazines...He never waves when he goes by...He has no friends and he has no dog and his lawn is dying...What's he building in there?"

So, yes, "Mule Variations" is great. It doesn't move the Tom Waits legend any further forward (especially in the case of "Georgia Lee", which, fine though it is, seems like a retread of "A Little Rain" to me) but it consolidates everything that's been before in an enjoyable fashion, bathing the whole in a grainy, sepia-tinted, rain-lashed glow that's possibly the audio antithesis of the late 80s slew of Eno/Lanois productions. ("This LP recorded, mixed and mastered in analog", says the back cover, and thank goodness for that!) If you're already a fan you can invest with confidence - despite the extended absence his jeweller's eye for detail and corrosive crooning haven't been harmed a bit - and if you're merely an interested beginner "Mule Variations" is as fine a place to start as any.

TOM WAITS Blood Money (Anti)

TOM WAITS Alice (Anti)

Retracing the footsteps of The Beatles, Guns N' Roses and Bruce Springsteen, Tom Waits has released a matching set of red and blue albums on the same day. "Blood Money" is the crimson half of the pair, apparently inspired by German poet Georg Büchner's 1837 play "Woyzek". A tale of army life, medical experiments, insanity, infidelity and murder, it sounds like ideal bedtime reading round at the Waits' place.

Its musical reconstruction finds Tom burrowing mole-like even further into the core of his archetypal sound. Everything appears distorted, as if viewed through a sepia fog, with Waits' singing lurching from deranged carney barking ("Misery Is The River Of The World", with its ribtickling punchline "Everybody row!", "God's Away On Business", "Starving In The Belly Of The Whale") to utter, despairing resignation ("Everything Goes To Hell"), with the occasional leavening romantic interlude of gruff crooning ("Coney Island Baby" - not the Lou Reed song! - and "All The World Is Green"). The soundtrack to Waits' bloodied outpourings is all wheezing, fairground calliope, distressed, detuned string arrangements, flailing brass and found percussion, a refinement (if that's the right word, since there's precious little that's actually refined about this wailing cacophony) of everything he's been working at musically since taking the podium to command the junkyard orchestra that scratched out 1983's "Swordfishtrombones". In fact, the instrumental "Calliope" sounds eerily like a horribly mangled version of that album's "Just Another Sucker On The Vine".

What's most remarkable about "Blood Money" is the delicate intertwining of the sour and the sweet, something Waits has always been adept at that here reaches its breathtaking apogee, its ultimate balance. For every outbreak of steam-powered insanity (for example the jarring "Knife Chase", which sounds like the kind of vintage jazz that frequently soundtracks Woody Allen films given a thorough avant-gardening) there's an equal portion of warm-hearted singalong (the Louis Armstrong-like growly grin Waits coughs up for "A Good Man Is Hard To Find" sounds like a mainstay of 1940s radio variety shows). "Blood Money" is a fine album, and if it lacks something of the shock of the new it's a slight failing that it shares with every Waits album since "Swordfishtrombones", and is in no way suggestive of declining inspiration or decreasing merit.

"Alice" is the bluer twin, in both colour and shape. This music was originally written for a 1992 production of Paul Schmidt's eponymous opera, staged at Hamburg's Thaila Theatre and directed by regular Waits collaborator Robert Wilson. The subject matter of the work was one Alice Liddell, a young girl who was apparently the inspiration behind Lewis Carroll's "Alice In Wonderland" and "Through The Looking Glass".

The album takes the "Blood Money" template and pads a woozy, opiated, filtering layer of cotton wool around it. Here Waits' music has a smokey, late night, jazz club feel, softening and blurring some of its rougher edges. These are mostly elegiac meditations on loss and mortality in their many forms. Naturally, it's punctuated by spikier stuff, such as the Teutonic slave-driving rant "Kommienezuspadt" (sort of Krautrock-goes-Roman Empire) and the witty, toe-tapping, saloon-bar swing of "Table Top Joe", about a boy born without a body who dreams of being a famous pianist. "Fawn" is a lovely, barely-there violin coda, whilst the album crests to its greatest height on "Lost In The Harbour", an amorphous cloud of pump organ sadness.

Perhaps less immediately impressive than "Blood Money", "Alice" nevertheless takes the golden gong out of this pair of releases. It's Waits on a small scale, undeniably, but crammed with tiny moments to treasure.

TOM WAITS Orphans: Brawlers, Bawlers & Bastards (Anti)

As the cover sticker proclaims, “Orphans” contains “over three hours of rare and never-before-heard music”, and the artist himself has likened it to “a lot of songs that fell behind the stove while making dinner”. Despite such expectation-lowering pronouncements there’s nothing throwaway about this immaculate collection; in fact, “Orphans” makes several dozen cases for consideration as Waits’ definitive work. What binds the kaleidoscope of styles it rampages through together is the sepia-toned, junkshop cacophony wrought from such unlikely instruments as whistles, boulders, cowbells, circular violin, bamboo clarinet, the bug (sic) and waterphone, and Waits’ ragged, corroded vocal cords, arguably heard at their most expressive and wide-ranging here.

The songs are gathered roughly together by theme. “Brawlers”, predictably, is full of two-fisted rock ‘n’ roll and angular rhythm and blues, typified by the haunted, frightened skiffle of “Lie To Me”. On “Bottom Of The World” Waits spins yarns from kind of richly evocative yet nonsensical language rarely heard since Captain Beefheart retired to his oils. “Ain’t Goin’ Down To The Well” mutates the Leadbelly tune until it sounds eerily like the work of the artist most frequently saddled with the description ‘the female Tom Waits’, Sandy Dillon. This sprawling collection’s poster boy, “Road To Peace” is a clear-eyed, even-handed coach trip through Middle Eastern conflict, the futility of the tit-for-tat retaliations and recriminations it catalogues underlined by the painful irony of its title. “All The Time” is a “Peter Gunn” melody, hotwired, bootlegged, rusted and busted, and the tingle of recognition that accompanies “Rains On Me” can be attributed to its presence in different form on Chuck E. Weiss’ 1999 long player “Extremely Cool”, where it appeared positively polished compared with the arrangement lashed together here, all moonshine choir and percussion that sounds like raindrops clattering into saucepans.

“Bawlers” sets the tone with the gently fatalistic woozy lullabies “Bend Down The Branches” and “You Can Never Hold Back Spring”. “Long Way Home” is almost country music, its clip-clopping bassline pure Tennessee Two. (It’s only slightly disconcerting to discover that the song was actually written for Norah Jones.) “Little Drop Of Poison” sounds like a close cousin of Ry Cooder’s similarly sinister “In My Town”, yet its previous port of call was the “Shrek 2” soundtrack. “Shiny Things” is all brave-faced, banjo-plunking melancholy, and the melody of “World Keeps Turning” drips down the stave like teardrops. Continuing the down-at-heel, sad-songs-say-so-much aesthetic, there’s a Child Support Agency case buried deep within “Tell It To Me”. “Never Let Go” is a barroom piano-orchestrated roll down the gutter, Waits’ voice sounding like his throat is lined with barnacles. The jazzy piano and smoky sax of “Little Man” hark back to his Asylum years. A woozy barfly choir accompanies him on an appropriately hoarse swagger through Leadbelly’s “Goodnight Irene”, and “Take Care Of All My Children” is Salvation Army lo-fi. Barely recognisable for the Ramones song it apparently once was, “Danny Says” brings a little humility and humanity to its potentially tiresome whingeing-rock-star-on-tour template. Finally, Hawaiian guitars sway alongside a sweet/sour cover of the standard “Young At Heart”.

The final disc, “Bastards”, is perhaps the most impressive. By corralling together a bunch of strays and offcuts without first straining them by genre, it has a messy spontaneity that the constricting concepts of the other two discs can sometimes lack. Here a couple of songs from Hal Willner’s high concept tribute projects (the Weimar stomp of Brecht and Weill’s “What Keeps Mankind Alive”; a startling reinvention of the Disney tune “Heigh Ho”, which in Waits’ hands coughs like an asthmatic steam engine) rub greasy shoulders with recitations from the works of Georg Büchner, Charles Bukowski and Jack Kerouac. The chugging “Dog Door” first appeared on Sparklehorse’s “It’s A Wonderful Life” album; unfortunately, it still sounds like a parody of a Tom Waits song. “King Kong” is an astonishingly primal Daniel Johnston cover, its human beatboxing running at tangents to the crabwalking propulsion of its skeletal melody. Closing the collection are a couple of unlisted testaments to Waits the piano-propped shaggy dog raconteur.

A dizzying array of styles rampage through these discs, but the dusty, twilit filter Waits refracts these songs through means that it might take a while to recognise their diversity. In fact, you’d probably have to delve deep into the sparse booklet notes to recognise the covers, so completely does he remake them. “Orphans” might seem an indomitable challenge to the listener, but, as the most sustained outpouring of Waits’ talent yet, it’s one that the acclimatised fan will revel in. Is it better than “Swordfishtrombones” or “Small Change”? I’d suggest that it’s so different as to be incomparable, but where his later years have sometimes produced albums that gently disappoint, there are no such caveats required here.