Tom Waits is known as the gravel-throated singer/songwriter that many people seem not to "get". Very little negative has been said about Mr.Waits, but at the same time, many people pass him off as one of those artists that fall into the "They write good music, it’s just not for me" catagory. At times it’s very easy to see why. But in this, his 1978 album "Blue Valentine" he exhibits some of the elements that make people class him as "Not for them" but he hasn’t yet graduated into complete oddity, writing mainly heartfelt ballads and amusing anecdotes and avoiding strange instrumentation and experimentation.
The album starts off with the ballad "Somewhere" from West Side story. This song shows off Wait’s wonderful singing voice when it’s not over the top gravelly, as it is during other songs on this album. It opens the album nicely, and the lyrics are quite welcoming
"Somewhere a place for us
Peace and quiet and open air
Wait for us"- Somewhere (From A West Side Story)
It’s a nice song but its not one I would listen to on it’s own. It’s one of those songs that add to an album but don't really stand on their own. However, The following songs are all anecdotal in lyrical content, but a lot of them are also sung like ballads, conveying the emotions of the characters in the stories. These characters allow each track to be played individually and still get the feeling listening to a whole album would give you.
"Red Shoes By The Drugstore" is one of these songs, the story won’t be spoiled because after all half the fun of listening to Tom Waits is figuring out the story he tells in each of his songs. This song has little instrumentation, simply Tom’s voice singing over bass and percussion.This is probably the best way because use of extravagant orchestration would have probably damaged this song’s emotional content, as it would if many of his other songs.
The next song again is simply Tom Wait’s voice over his brilliant piano playing. It conjures images of an empty bar, save one or two people sharing stories of their youth. But "Christmas Card From A Hooker In Minneapolis" is probably best described as simply one of the most brilliant Tom Waits has ever released, hell, he could have released it as simply poetry and it still would have a huge impact on his fans.
"I wish I had all the money
That we used to spend on dope
I'd buy me a used car lot
And I wouldn't sell any of em
I'd just drive a different car
Every day, depending on how
I feel"- Christmas Card From A Hooker In Minneapolis
"Romeo Is Bleeding" seems to lack compared to the previous song, it tries to conjure images of 50’s era mobsters but it seems to try a bit too hard. Even though it gives great character development on Romeo’s part it lacks some of the story telling his other songs have. Sure, Romeo seems like a man no one wants to bump into at night, but the plot lines in Wait’s music are what keeps many coming back. Unfortunately, this is a weak spot.
Luckily, "$29.00" is a huge improvement. This song has a very bluesey feel thanks to the guitar which fits this story (or song, depending on how you listen) perfectly. It also features by far the richest story on this album, telling a story about a little Black Girl with only "29$ and an Alligator Purse" you can guess how that one turns out on your own.
Taking a brief break from the storytelling, "Wrong Side of the Road" is Tom Wait’s weirdness in full swing (Unless "put a dead cat on the railroad tracks" is something you listen to normally). Oddly enough, it ends up being a love song. It’s weird, yes, but it isn’t so weird as to make it un-listenable. It’s a song easily eclipsed by other songs like "Christmas Card…" and "29.00" but it’s a nice addition to the album. After all, you gotta let your brain calm down sometime during the album.
"Whistling past the Graveyard" is another oddity, but it paints a clear picture in one’s mind. It seems just to be a blues song made to show the personality of the singer. This song would probably be amazing live, but it isn’t so great on the album. It’s mighty catchy but the lyrical content is rather sketchy. If Tom Waits was the type to populate MTV or other music television, this song would make a great video or such due to the VERY strong image it paints. It also brings memories of John Lee Hooker’s "I’m Bad Like Jessie James" because of the hardass character it shows.
It’s storytelling time again kids, "Kentucky Avenue" brings back the character development and plot of other songs on the album, which is the best part really. It also reverts to simply Tom and a piano, giving it a more personal feel. It’s a song about teenage fun, and memories of being a teenager and having reckless fun. It’s a calm song that brings images that nearly everyone could remember, making it a really nice heartfelt ballad.
Going from calm to weird, again. "A Sweet Little Bullet from A Pretty Blue Gun" demonstrates the weirdness that Tom will become related to later in his career. This is the sort of the song with the strange instrumentation that people will hear on his albums Rain Dogs or Swordfishtrombones. The song seems to be about suicide, but mixes the storytelling concept in with it quite well. Telling the story of a girl "with nothing in her jeans". It’s Probably one of the best songs on the album.
And finally, the album closes with the title track "Blue Valentines". It’s a song about heartbreak. Or rather, the memory of heartbreak. It has only Tom, a guitar and a bass, but that’s all it needs. The lyrics are very well written, even if written a bit more traditionally than other songs. It’s still a great listen and is one of the songs where Tom Waits doesn’t mask himself as a character and just writes a song using his own emotions. Very fitting of the final song to basically summarize most of the other songs also.
Pros- Very raw and emotional, great storytelling
Cons- A lot of the non-story songs lack the instrumentation that his later work had, sometimes making them slightly boring
"Christmas Card from A Hooker in Minneapolis", "$29.00" and "A Sweet Little Bullet from A Pretty Blue Gun"
4.5/5- Aside from small imperfections, this is an amazing album. One of Tom Wait’s best for sure.