1978 – Asylum
Blues/ Jazz/ Rock
The sixth studio album by Tom Waits is a brilliantly melancholic wandering through the seedy streets of his whiskey soaked mind. From the growling mockery of Somewhere (From Westside Story) to the weeping lament of Blues Valentines this record is a wonderfully evocative romance with the seamy underbelly of urban America.
The sheer danger and criminality of Romeo Is Bleeding and Wrong Side Of The Road are juxtaposed magnificently against the dirges of Postcards From A Hooker In Minneapolis and Kentucky Avenue, and each track flows perfectly from one to the next. Waits’ voice has really come into its own on this record too, and it’s a real treat to listen the range of emotion he can drag out of that razorblade rasp.
He has been criticized in the past for being overly fond of the clichéd characters and worlds he creates, but on Blue Valentine I think that criticism is unfounded. There is an earnestness and sincerity that comes through on this record, and, even though the settings are cliché and hammy, they suck you in a give you a good noir fiction ride. Personally I actually find the over-the-top-ness of Blue Valentine incredibly charming. It’s like watching James Cagney playing gangsters; you know he’s not really a crook, but you want to believe.
The music itself is also well formulated and shows a good scope of inspiration. There’s the ridiculous crooning of the title track which sounds like an emphysemic Frank Sinatra, there’s drunken Howlin’ Wolf blues of Whistling Past The Graveyard, and there’s the hollow atmospheric jazz of Red Shoes By The Drug Store – this record really is jam packed full of shadowy nostalgia.
The band is minimal, only dragging instruments outside of the core when they are really needed (except when Tom decides to indulge in a Bing Crosby musical moment and drag in an immensely cheesy string section, but this doesn’t happen too often), and they all play tightly while keeping the laid-back swing this kind of music requires. And, while the album is chock full of blues and jazz, none of the tracks sound too similar as they all explore different forms of the genre.
Another thing Blue Valentine has over the other Tom Waits Asylum records is that it doesn’t take itself too seriously or get drowned in the boozy weepers that Waits so often writes. One couldn’t exactly call it light-hearted, but some of the tracks (generally speaking the more lively ones like Whistling Past The Graveyard and Romeo Is Bleeding) have a tinge of self-consciousness about them as if Waits is actually starting the realize the stagey construction of his fantasy world and playing that backdrop for all it’s worth. Maybe that’s just me being overly optimistic, or maybe it’s true, but either way it makes for a more compelling record that some of his others.
In summation I would that Blue Valentine is a triumph as a record and an album which earns Tom Waits the status he enjoys. He is an evocative world builder, a showman, a storyteller, and an accomplished songwriter and, while I don’t believe it’s as good as his later work, it is definitely a masterpiece of the Asylum years. It is a highlight album from a giant of music and it would be a necessary addition to the catalogue of any serious collector.
One of my pesoanl favourite tracks from 1978’s Blue Valentine.