On what is inarguably Tom Waits’s best album since Rain Dogs a quarter of a century ago, he strolls assuredly across the landscape of American music, turning his hand with equal facility to an extraordinary range of styles, and managing to invent one or two of his own along the way. It must be wonderful to exercise such protean command over one’s art, and it’s immensely satisfying to witness it wielded by a musician of such remorseless integrity.
Right from the start, it’s hard to keep up with the relentless pace of Waits’s invention: “Chicago” barrels in on furious keyboard industry akin to a Reich or Adams slice of train-themed minimalism, somehow allied to honking R&B trombone, bass clarinet and bluesharp, and the spindly blues guitars of Marc Ribot and Keith Richards. Over in just a couple of minutes, it’s a dazzling, whirlwind evocation of the great emancipatory migration from Mississippi to Chicago, and one of the greatest album openers you’ll ever hear.
The themes of migration, dissatisfaction and desperation then spread out across the album in all kinds of ways. In “Get Lost”, a peculiar Tex-Mex garage-rockabilly piece blessed with the beatific spirit of Los Lobos’ David Hidalgo, the protagonist has souped up his ride in preparation for escape; in the haunted walking blues “Face to the Highway”, Hidalgo and Ribot’s guitars lend the appropriately fatalistic air to an inveterate wanderer’s acknowledgement that the road is a stronger lure than love; and in “Last Leaf”, the allegorical leaf evokes an old-timer’s determination to resist the corrosion of age: “I’ll be here through eternity/ If you want to know how long/If they cut down this tree/ I’ll turn up in a song”. It’s a lovely image, crooned over pump organ, with Keith Richards an apt duettee. And most bizarrely of all, in “Hell Broke Luce” a poor benighted draftee bemoans his life as a grunt, barking his exasperation over a mutant march of drilling soldiers, machine-guns, explosions, horns and mangled guitars that’s entirely sui generis. It’s almost as if the classic Glenn Miller parade-ground swing had been updated to something hellish and acid-fried and supremely pissed-off: “I had a good home but I left, right, left/ That big fucking bomb made me deaf, deaf”.
Waits also reaches a rapprochement with the louche jazzbo style of his earlier records, with the beautiful barroom drawl of “Kiss Me”, the “Spanish Harlem”-esque torch-song “Back in the Crowd”, and the wistful blues-waltz “Pay Me”, with its cantina piano sounding like it came straight out of Touch of Evil. The more familiar R&B swagger is best effected on “Satisfied”, a riposte to the Stones’ “Satisfaction”, which applies the gospel roll of a Sister Rosetta Tharpe rockin’ spiritual to Waits’s antsy proclamation: “Now Mr Jagger, Mr Richards, I will scratch where I’ve been itching”. And to give him his due, Keef sounds far more engaged here than he did at the last Stones show I saw. But these are just a few of the highlights of an album which contains no filler at all, each track blooming in its own way like a collection of strange desert succulents, with a whole lot of hollerin’ and a touch of Lieber-Stollerin’.