“Alice” is a haunting nightmare, much like “Bone Machine”. The title-track immediately pulls you down the rabbit hole and into a world of madness and despair. Driven by Waits’ piano line backed up by a sorrowful saxophone, the song is heartbreaking but incredibly delicate and beautiful. It sets the tone of the album perfectly; one of the most depressing Tom Waits albums to date. The album was written (like all of his recent albums) in collaboration with his life and song writing partner Kathleen Brennan, inspired by Alice in Wonderland. The lyrics do not really form a story line, but are linked together by the general theme of despair. It is incredibly downbeat and dominated by ballads in the same vein as “Alice” the opener”. The ballads on this particular album are somewhat less accessible than other Tom Waits ballads you might think of (“Martha”, “Time”, “Who Are You”, “Take It with Me When I Go”), simply because they’re so depressing. Not that this is necessarily a bad thing. “Alice” is one of Tom Waits’ best songs, no doubt about that.
On “Everything You Can Think” the madness begins. Tom Waits growls his way through the entire tune, in great contrast to his gentle singing on most of the other songs. Aside from this, the song is not that noticeable, and his signature growl is utilized better later on “We’re All Mad Here”, a creepy retelling of death and decomposition. A lot of the songs have their similarities musically. Most are ballads, and the flow of the album isn’t really interrupted as often as it is on most Tom Waits album. Still, “Kommienezuspadt” disrupts this flow entirely. It’s a crazy, polka-like tune, sung in something that sounds German, although most of it seems to be gibberish. I still can’t decide whether I like it or not. He howls his way through the tune, into the second highlight of the album “Poor Edward”. While it doesn’t have quite the emotional impact of “Alice”, it certainly comes close. It’s the story of a man named Edward, with a woman’s face on the back of his head, who drives him to suicide (I basically rephrased the lyrics). It’s haunting and depressing, like most of the album.
“Table Top Joe”, other than the aforementioned “Kommienezuspadt” is the song the least fits into the generalisation I’ve tried to make regarding this album. It’s not really a ballad, nor is it very heartbreaking. Its lyrical topic brings to mind Mule Variation’s “Eyeball Kid”, both telling the tale of a protagonist without a body, as strange as that sounds. It’s a catchy, swing-like tune and quite humorous, in contrast to the rest of the album. When compared to most other Tom Waits albums there really isn't that much musical variation here. It continues on the sad note until the closer: "Fawn" a gentle violin playing over basic instrumentation. The nightmare is over.
There isn’t really much else to say about “Alice”. The songs get somewhat similar at times and it’s sort of a masochistic listen in its bleakness. It's not as consistent or varied as many Tom Waits albums are, but it has a huge emotional impact. The songs “Alice” and “Poor Edward” are Tom Waits classics, and the song writing is strong throughout. A great album on its own, but in Tom Waits’ exceptional discography, it doesn’t stand up to his very best work.