Review Summary: A slight move away from Waits' predictable early routine, "Blue Valentine" boasts some of the artist's finest songs even if the whole package is somewhat lacking.
Tom Waits' 70s output generally (and rightly) does not receive the same adoration as his post-Swordfishtrombones
freak out material, but that does not mean there aren't nuggets of brilliance in there. Closing Time
had a few early gems sprinkled in a mostly mediocre album, while The Heart of Saturday Night
lacked any definite classics yet as a whole is just about the best late, late-night albums of all time. But things started to pick up with Small Change
, almost universally cited as his best album of the Asylum years. It showed a raspier Waits, and one who suddenly figured out how to sort most of the detritus and rote of his early albums in favor of beat poet doom and gloom that didn't place his down-and-outers on a pedestal so much as join them in the gutter. It was a monumental leap forward in terms of songwriting and at last gave us a taste of the "real" Tom Waits.
For some reason, Waits opens the album with "Somewhere" from Stephen Sondheim's West Side Story
, which at least shows how beautiful he can make that glorious shambles of a voice. The music is, in classic early Waits style, muted and subtle, gently easing you into the proceedings. Nevertheless, it's a weak opener that loses interest after one or two listenings.
But that doesn't matter one bit, because as soon as "Somewhere" fades from your stereo the Waits smacks you with three of his best tunes, from the early years or any other time. "Red Shoes by the Drugstore" plays like the even darker version of Bruce Springsteen's "Meet Me Across the River," recounting the story of a poor woman who goes out to meet her boyfriend, who was killed in a robbery attempt. "Romeo is Bleeding," on the other hand, mixes the movies Shane
and Rumble Fish
, which is weird because Rumble Fish
didn't even exist yet. In it, our hero has been mortally wounded but refuses to show any pain in front of the young gangbangers who look up to him. "He climbs the balcony at the movies/And he'll die without a whimper/like every hero's dream/Like an angel with a bullet/and Cagney on the screen"
Waits croons with resignation.
Sandwiched between these two excellent cuts is without a doubt of the all-time Tom Waits classics. "Christmas Card from a Hooker in Minneapolis" comes almost verbatim from a Charles Bukowski poem, and when paired up with Waits' broken growl and his somber piano it becomes one of the most achingly beautiful songs ever written. Not many movies
can retain the surprise of a twist ending on repeats, but somehow this song never loses the pure punch to the gut that comes with the final reveal. "Christmas Card" is on the short list of the most torturous and beautiful songs I've ever heard, and it never fails to bring me at least to the brink of tears.
The rest of the album, sadly, fails to live up to the standard of these three tracks, with the exception of the superb "Kentucky Avenue," an incredible rumination on childhood fun and that indefinable line that a child must cross to confront the world around him. Again he crafts a short story complete with a great reveal that casts the song in a whole new light. But "$29.00" is too long by half, and "Wrong Side of the Road" is nothing we haven't already heard from Waits ten times. When we finally get to the album closer, too many of the tracks have bled into one another, and "Blue Valentines" seems more like a summary than a song in its own right.
It's not that any of the songs are necessarily weak; they're just retreads. There are certainly moments of beauty and horror in "$29.00" and the suicidal "A Sweet Little Bullet from a Pretty Blue Gun," but they lack much of the poetry of the stronger numbers, or they're paired up with the wrong arrangements, or they overstay their welcome. I get the feeling I might have liked this album a lot more if it was the first Waits record I ever picked up, but it seems almost derivative (if you could ever apply that label to Waits' music -- and you can't) by the man's standards.
is ultimately a step forward, even if it takes two steps back in the process. If Small Change
showed Waits coming into his own as a lyricist, Valentine
advances the music with it. At last Waits begins to add guitars to his mix of lounge jazz/blues, creating a more rocking feel while never surrendering to his initial sound. Oh, it's not pump organs and mad cabaret yet, but pieces are slowly falling into place. Sadly, the guitars rarely play a role, and for the most part the album sticks to a formula that was becoming increasingly stale. Who could tell from this album where he'd end up in a few years"