The 1992 opera for which Alice
was originally written has yet to reach our shores, but it's hard to believe it could fulfill the promise of a playwright marrying a musician better than the album itself does. Kathleen Brennan has influenced Tom Waits' music ever since they met in 1980, and while only two of Waits' subsequent albums have been actual stage musicals, all of them have used skewed arrangements like impressionist backdrops and a multiplicity of characters for Waits to stylize his vocals around.
What's remarkable about Alice is how diverse it is in style, while maintaining a single, magically nocturnal mood. The title track and "Flower's Grave" are as jazzily sentimental as anything on Waits' '73 debut, Closing Time, while other tunes are as wild and woolly as anything he's done since: "Everything You Can Think" is a dankly percussive skeleton march along the lines of Rain Dogs' "Singapore," and the convulsive cabaret jazz of "Kommienezuspadt" sounds like the Andrews Sisters' "Bei Mir Bist Du Schön" with Tourette's.
But it's not only the arrangements that weave Alice together. The album, a loose tribute to Lewis Carroll, maintains a subtle storybook theme in the lyrics, from the allusive tall tales of "Everything . . ." ("We're fighting our way up dreamland's spine with red flamingoes and expensive wine") to the pure storytelling of "Table Top Joe" -- over honeyed, Dixieland jazz -- about a boy "born without a body" who's a dancin' fool nonetheless. While the stories are all sung in character -- the barfly crooner, the chanting underworld tour guide, the crazed cabaret emcee -- Waits' vocals never feel strained or affected. Alice adds up to a musical picture book so colorful it seduces your imagination into creating scenarios for which no stage set could do justice.
On the other hand, a theatrical presentation might not hurt Blood Money, Waits' concurrent release based on the 1837 German play Woyzek. For one thing, it contains not one but three "Singapore"-like cartoon death marches, with little musical or thematic difference between them. And while Lou Reed's "Coney Island Baby" deserves a song that lives up to the romance of its title, Waits' eponymous Tin Pan Alley ditty is a touch too cute -- you want to hang it on the wall like an old piece of sheet music. That said, the song glimmers with romantic poetry ("All the stars make their wishes on her eyes") worthy of "Downtown Train," and the circus-calliope-drenched "A Good Man Is Hard to Find" has some of the most elegant couplets in the career of this master coupleteer: "How far from the gutter, how far from the pew, I'll always remember to forget about you."
In fact, the entire album -- musically more percussive and bold than its twin, but shallower and less beguiling -- bears swatches of Waits' lyrical talent at its height. Despite its relative pallor in Alice's strange glow, Blood Money is good enough to make you wonder how Waits and Brennan, the purportedly happy couple, have thwarted the muse-stifling scourge of domesticity. Then again, they always were a little different.