In his earlier years, all Tom Waits needed to animate a live show was a piano and a standard lamp, the latter casting a suitably sepulchral gloom over his rough-hewn crooning. In those days, he was most renowned as a lyricist who had helped reconnect a sagging singer-songwriter tradition with its beat-poetry roots, so the accompaniment was kept sparse enough not to get in the way of the words.
Since then, the balance has, if not entirely reversed, then at least shifted significantly, to the point where Waits comes armed with a small ensemble of players able to accommodate the variety of instrumental colouration in his songs, while the lyrics have to some extent retreated into a netherworld of nursery rhymes and familiar folksong phraseology. But, perhaps anxious that he might be verbally short-changing his audiences, Waits has vastly expanded his song introductions into such a flood of patter that for this record of last year's Glitter & Doom tour, they're accorded their own separate CD, which plays like a surreal stand-up routine set to the desultory, abstract tinkling of his piano. Except that it's not all that funny, the singer profiting from the tendency of audiences to respond over-generously to any slightly amusing onstage remark a musician might vouchsafe.
Musically, however, there's no denying he has developed a peculiar genius entirely his own, his songs illuminating the American experience from the gutter up, perfectly set within arrangements that draw on all manner of native styles, from folk to fairground, juke-joint to jazz, country to church, but which all bear the stamp of Waits's unique junkyard-blues sensibility. It's there in the way that the occasional bell tolls over brooding bass clarinet and astringent guitar, affirming the graveyard sentiment of "Dirt in the Ground"; in the whiskery boho-blues shuffle "Get Behind the Mule", which, stung with guitar and burnished with horns, seems to get funkier as it proceeds; and in the way that Spanish guitar and clarinet waltz with some weird keyboard – optigan, perhaps, or mellotron – as Tom confides how "the kiss don't know what the lips will say" in "The Part You Throw Away".
In some cases, as when the clunky marimba-driven "Singapore" collapses in upon itself like some self-destructing Heath Robinson machine, it sounds like the band is actually playing in a junkyard. But, mostly, what one feels is an almost unbearable poignancy – particularly hearing Waits's recurrent plaintive wail in "Trampled Rose", or that familiar clarinet descant cutting across the slow calliope waltz of "Live Circus", which seems to derive from some great reservoir of loss at the heart of the American Dream.
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