Six albums into Tom Waits’ discography and I was beginning to wonder if there’d be anything I hated. The opening track of 1978’s Blue Valentine, a cover of “Somewhere” from West Side Story, would be that thing I hate. It’s not that I don’t think Waits is capable of something so sweet and sentimental, but this track is way out of his style. His voice sounds strained, and not in a good way, and the overwrought orchestration felt like it might rot my teeth right out. I put this in the opening of this review so I could get it out of the way, up front. Because the truth is, the album, although not nearly as cohesive a piece as the previous five, is possibly the most interesting so far.
To the uninitiated, it’s possible they wouldn’t notice a marked difference between some of the tracks on this album and those that preceded it. But if you’re familiar with his work, and I’m sure this was true when the album was initially released, the difference is actually quite stark. For starters, there are electric instruments on this album, from guitars to pianos. This is not as monumental as Dylan going electric, but it still stands out. “Red Shoes By The Drugstore,” the second track on the album features an electric bass and jungle drum beat, punctuated by an electric piano that adds a spacey element to Waits’s spoken growl of a story. And that story, about a gangster named Cesar and a femme fatale in red shoes, may sound familiar, but this is not the same Waits that fits in perfectly in some long lost movie’s background. This has a feel that is more pulp comic book. The colors are vibrant and the style is maybe larger than life, rather than the more personal point of view of previous Waits.
As if put there to make the rest stand out, “Christmas Card From a Hooker in Minneapolis” is a heartfelt, stripped-down late night blues confession that may have been actually scrawled on what must have been a rather large, discarded Christmas card Waits found in some odd thrift shop somewhere. But where in the past, the narrator was often referred to as “Tom,” making Waits the lead actor in his tales, this story is told in the unnamed hooker’s voice, addressing her brother Charlie, asking for money and telling him her woes about being a dope fiend. That doesn’t seem like a big departure, but it somehow adds a layer that continues to be decorated by the use of electric piano.
If someone had told me I’d be hearing Waits sing about Chicano gangsters, I’d say that person didn’t know anything about Tom Waits and must be mistaken. Yet, “Romeo is Bleeding” is all about a pachuco who was shot, but refuses to stop being “cool” as he slowly bleeds out, going about his day with a bullet in his chest. These gangsters feel young, though. These are not the grizzled, black and white move criminals of “Small Change.” This is teenage delinquent, zoot suit, hot rod, pulp romance. Romeo dies a hero to the other hoods, always cool. Always young. Always vibrant. The percussive bounce and jive of the congas, bass and sax put the music somewhere in the 50s, but by the time it ends with Waits speaking random parts of background characters in Spanish slang, it brought to mind Beck’s “Que Onda Guero.” And playing those two completely different songs back to back is now something I highly recommend. It’s like a fantastically jarring instantaneous trip through time, while standing in the same intersection. But I digress…
Aside from the opening track, and “Kentucky Avenue,” there aren’t many strings on this album. And while his use of orchestration on previous albums was not in your face, it was there much more often than one might at first realize. Instead, this album leans more to the blues, particularly on “$29.00,” which brings to mind something like Eddie Boyd’s “Third Degree” or Lowell Fulson’s “Reconsider Baby.” It’s late night dive bar blues, maybe played quietly, but electric. You can feel the smoke rising from everybody’s cigarettes.
Rounding out the album are “Whistlin Past the Graveyard” which feels almost like an outtake from The Nightmare Before Christmas, “A Sweet Little Bullet From a Pretty Little Gun” which had me “of course” slapping my forehead with the realization that Waits sounds a lot like Dr. John at times. The final track, “Blue Valentines,” plural, is a stripped down, clean electric guitar and Waits ballad about loss and past love that could easily be a jazz standard.
Overall, the album has a texture to it that is unique among the first 6 albums of his career. Where previous albums have been cohesive thematic pieces, this feels more disjointed and varied, and that’s ok. There’s something vaguely and beautifully anachronistic about some of it, which only adds another level of atmosphere to the whole. So while I wouldn’t call this his best album, it does contain some of his strongest work.