Tom Waits is one of those artists – it’s a cliché but you either understand him or you never will. Some say he sounds like Satan; some say he sounds like Sesame Street’s Mr. Snuffleupagus. Whichever camp you lay within you’re probably a bit scared of him.
This album is not like very many other live albums I know of; it is a compilation of the best recordings from the entirety of the tour of North America and Europe Waits undertook in the Summer of 2008.
Opener Lucinda/Ain’ Goin’ Down To The Well No Mo’ could only be described as cool as fuck. It is the sound of a man possessed by whisky, cigarettes and voodoo, but only because he has allowed these elements to possess him. You get the feeling Waits welcomes the intruders with open arms, all three visitors adding to the party.
Live his voice is even more demonically contorted; in fact at times it sounds like the 70s schlocky horror exorcisms we’ve all grown immune to.
But not everything Tom Waits puts through speakers is shamanistic. In Dirt In The Ground he has the most depressing, tearjerking ballad I am aware of, except for perhaps Elliott Smith’s Needle In The Hay. It would of course be insulting to compare the two, but there is a similar battle between arrogance and tenderness in the two artists. ‘We’re all gonna be dirt in the ground.’ You can envisage the fans holding lighters in the air crying into each other’s shoulders, before the sudden change in pace to Such A Scream. I am unaware of whether this is how most sets on the tour went, or if any jumped between such polar opposite moods a la Heather Mills. However, with Tom it works. Mental illness is implicit in every riff, line and afrobeat, so schizophrenic moodshifts are to be expected.
The live album is at times a hard sell. In this case it acts as a sort of best-of for Mr. Waits, without patronising die-hard fans as so many record labels would prefer to do. However, I have neglected to mention the aspect of the album which makes it a must-have for anyone intrigued by the persona of Tom Waits.
The deluxe edition features a second disc, purely made up of Waits’ onstage banter. Running to a healthy length of 35 minutes, Waits’ charisma shines through in bizarre stories about Nazi alphabet soup (‘pastikas’), vomiting vultures and the ways in which he finds these stories relate to his own life. Psychedelic (almost definitely fabricated) tales of laws in various parts of America show Waits’ dry sense of humour and likeability. My favourite invented Waits law? ‘You can’t photograph a rabbit in the middle of the week in Oklahoma.’
Whatever concoction of mucus, whisky and tar has raped Tom Waits’ blood cells, it is powering him in a way that most, including myself, would be jealous of.