Review Summary: 'Hey… Well, uh… I feel as though we should move right into the religious material…'
What does Big Time
mean? What is Waits trying to say with the title of this live album/movie combo? Had he 'hit the big time' by 1988? Well, maybe, but probably not. Yes, Waits had embarked on one of his largest-ever tours at this point, and was riding on the back of the success of the previous year's release, Frank's Wild Years
, but a small, brimming wave of unrest was forming in the Tom Waits critical fanclub. Frank
was an album mostly
well received by the public but in a somewhat more muted, polarising fashion than both Rain Dogs
. As the last of the 'Island Records Trilogy', it felt unfocused, overdone and even indecipherable at times. So what is Big Time as a concept? On paper, it's 'Frank's Wild Years and Other Classics'
on the road. In all honesty, it's a missed opportunity.
Recorded over two nights on two dates in San Francisco and Los Angeles in mid-1987, there's enough here to keep any ardent Tom Waits enthusiast obsessively caressing their iTunes for the three months following first listening, but where Waits' most powerful asset in the 1980s was that dramatic, innovative shift from beer-soaked balladeer to percussion-destroying lunatic, it's disheartening to discover that Big Time
's most frustrating feature is that it follows suit where it certifiably doesn't need to. The sparse groove of Gun Street Girl
now sounds like a special needs rhumba, the thunderous racket of Big Black Mariah
sounds like it's tumbled out the wrong end of a broken lawnmower and the painful, heartbreaking grandiose of Ruby's Arms
has transformed into just another bland, drunken meditation; 10 years of Waits seemingly purposefully destroying his own vocal chords has taken its toll on the beauty of his earlier work. Also he forgets the lyrics to Clap Hands
Maybe this is what makes Waits great; his lack of consideration for what 'should' and 'shouldn't'. Maybe this is what we should ask for from a live album; variation. The songs sound almost totally different, but were we concert-goers, would we want carbon copies of the studio versions blasted at us? Probably not. Songs can take minutes before they reveal their identity on Big Time
, but can cram in a satisfactory amount of foot-thumping, face-smacking funk until then. As for the set list, it has its swings and roundabouts. Open its veins and it'll proudly bleed Frank's Wild Years
, an album that, if we're being honest, packs a punch that doesn't fully connect when rolled out on stage; Big Time
's version of Straight to the Top
verges on unlistenable with its three minutes of pure inebriated mumble. However, Waits doesn't hesitate to roll out some of the larger guns in the canon, as Time
, 16 Shells
and Way Down in the Hole
all make show-stopping (and fairly faithful) appearances to please the crowd. The wise addition of Ruby's Arms
, in spite of its limping performance, works as great melodic relief from the frantic, angular nature of the concert.
Actually, you know what? I'm going to say it; the most confounding, frustrating aspect of Big Time
is its laziness. The classic vocal rhythms are totally ruined by Waits' improvisations, the set list is a haphazard mess of disjointed songs, and the production/mixing is beyond shambolic. Sure, nobody wants 'Stop Making Sense'
levels of cleanliness for a Waits live album, but will somebody get this man a pop shield? The final stages of Way Down in the Hole
are like having Tom sneeze in your ear. The complete lack of volume normalisation (and the hissing) on the recording of Time
also hints at ineptitude, as does the fact that a number of Big Time
's tracks have the aural echo and audience of a theatre or music hall, and a small few sound like they were recorded in a basement full of friends and family. The consistency of mixing on an album (particularly a live one) should be a paramount priority, but in this respect, Big Time
asks more troubling questions than it answers.
There were clearly some serious mishaps, misfires and misjudgements raked through the creative process of Big Time
. It's not going to win Waits any new fans; it's too dense and bizarre. In a similar vein, it's not going to please purists; Waits' voice is more macabre schizophrenic than hollerin' bluesman. However, for lovers of Waits' later avant-garde forays, Big Time
could be the album for them, as it pretty much takes his earlier material and makes it weirder... and shoutier. For the Waits newbie desperate to hear the great howler in a less clumsy fashion, there's always Glitter and Doom
, for this is not an entry-level album. Waits has stripped it all back too far for Big Time
. The expected mysticism is missing in action, the harsh beauty has been replaced by uncontrollable vocal spasms, and the piano has been drinking (not me).