The ALBUM -- Tom Waits' "Heatattacks and Vine," on Asylum 6E-295.
Here he comes, the bagman of blues, bumping his baggage over gutter and curb on the seediest streets of soul.
If Tom Waits' musical freight seems to have grown less weighty over the years, take a peek at "Heartattack and Vine." Though the contents may have settled somewhat, his latest album contains the same basic essentials: pain, lust, need, and greed, adventurousness and sheer stupidity, innocence in love, cynicism in language and the relentless energy that compels us to acquire all of the above.
Waits' reputation as a slob, both musically and personally,culminated in 1978's "Blue Valentine," which sounded on the whole like the miserable rumbling of a flea-bitten dog too lazy to scratch. This time, Waits makes no messes. The lyrics are intelligible, the voice clearer and the music a consistent shade of cobalt.
The title cut, which opens the LP, works on the body from the first note with sly allusions to the blues classic, "Fever." After a while, the knee-dipping urgency spreads to the brain via street-sharp lyrics like "you know there ain't no devil, there's just God when he's drunk."
Waits is patently back in his own neighborhood, among the bums, con men, creeps and addicts, and he takes his listeners there repeatedly without the slightest trace of bathos in songs like "Downtown," "'til the Money Runs Out," "On the Nickel" and "Mr. Siegal."
If these street scenes are often stark and even disgusting, Waits, as a participant, remains no less amazed by tghem than the uninitiated. His environment simultaneously inspires him ("Check this strange beverage that falls out from the sky, splashin' Bagdad on the Hudson in Panther Martin's eyes") and repels him ("The girls around her all look like Cadillacs").
Taking stock of the squalor inherent in a place where people "live hard, die young, and have a good-lookin' corpse every time," Waits shakes his head and wonders, "Why are the wicked so strong? How do the angels get to sleep, when the devil leaves his porchlight on""
Of course, Waits always has been one to pick over a phrase in search of the odd literary trinket. On "Heartattack and Vine," the style is so confident, the blues so true, that he is able to let the feeling come through in other ways.
"Jersey Girl" is the simplest of love songs, relayed with the epic quality of Bruce Springsteen and the musical soul of Van Morrison. It's a song so pure of heart that one forgets to be appalled when Waits, laureate of street lit, breaks into a joyous chorus of sh-la-las.
The most eloguent track on the album is in fact entirely instrumental: "In Shades" sounds like some old Junior Walker number taken at a profanely slow sway. Through the lulling base line, organist Ronnie Barron's generous use of swirling leslie and the scattered club chatter that litters the track, the listener becomes not a part of the indifferently attentive audience, but the bluesman himself, watching the watchers from behind bright lights and dark glasses. It's a wonderfully humorous exercise in voyeurism: The revelers, feeling themselves safe behind their martinis and small talk, remain blandly unaware of how the musicians observe them in that most uninhibited and bizarre state, manipulating them through the subtleties of dynamics.
The same technique is applied in the unusually long silences between tracks, wherein Waits' club-born instincts force one to savor what's been heard and anticipate what will come next. This kind of aural foreplay indicates a perception that the spaces in between the notes can be as important as the notes themselves.
All of which is not to say that Waits is no longer interested in his characters. From Willard the Sterno fiend, to Shorty, who's just "found a p-p-punk," to Sally ("fem in the sheets but she's butch in the streets"), Waits makes it clear that they're all worthy of love, no matter how hard they are to take. In Waits' world, "even Thomas Jeffeson is on the nickel."
Waits offers a warning about the way of life he projects: "You're better off in Iowa, against your scrambled eggs, than crawling down Cahuenga on a broken pair of legs." Still, after an affectionate tour of the territory like "Heartattack and Vine," there'll be plenty of sojourners waiting on that corner the next time Waits shuffles up to spill his cargo.