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Taking a ‘Beautiful’ Journey With Waits

****TOM WAITS

“Beautiful Maladies:

The Island Years”

Island

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Tom Waits’ music can be divided into two eras: the more traditional, pop-minded music he released on Asylum Records in the ‘70s when he was hailed as a promising addition to Southern California’s seemingly endless parade of quality singer-songwriters . . . and the more experimental, auteur years that followed on Island Records.

The Pomona native wrote songs during the Asylum years that were so accessible that they ended up being sung and/or recorded by artists as diverse as the Eagles (“Ol’ ‘55"), Bruce Springsteen (“Jersey Girl”) and Crystal Gayle (the memorable “One From the Heart” soundtrack).

It was during this time that Waits gave us songs, from the wonderfully rich “The Heart of Saturday Night” to the evocative “Broken Bicycles,” that rivaled the best of Randy Newman for character and craft--songs that often spoke about life from the tender, bruised perspective of a hard-luck guy whose dreams were always a bit out of reach.

But Waits rebelled against this side of his art with the fitful restlessness of a man who was either bored by the straight-forward approach or dismissed it as too easy. He wanted to do more than simply touch us with music, he wanted to awaken us.

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Even back in the Asylum years, he began singing in an increasingly tortured manner and squeezed his blues, folk and pop influences into all sorts of twisted, eccentric musical textures. At the same time, the lyrics frequently began taking the form of short stories or, even, barroom monologues.

The process was intensified when he switched to Island in the early ‘80s, stepping deeper and deeper into a world of his own exotic imagination. At some times he seemed so far from the pop sensibilities of the time that it was only fitting that he sometimes on stage shouted the words through a bullhorn. He truly seemed to be speaking to us from another dimension.

If much of the pop world sometimes got lost as Waits raced down unchartered streets, he gives us a helpful guide to his music in this outstanding retrospective.

Rather than sequence the tracks chronologically, he has arranged them in a new and revealing context.

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Waits doesn’t sugarcoat the experience. He hasn’t focused on necessarily his most accessible tunes. The opening selections may still seem jagged and distant in places, but there is a point in the album where you will begin to fall under his spell--a point, such as “Innocent When You Dream” or “Johnsburg, Illinois,” where he finds a way to balance the warmth of his ‘70s songwriting touch with the stylistic ambition of his later works.

Elsewhere, he leads us from the spunky “16 Shells From a Thirty-Ought Six” to the neo-gospel verve of “Jesus Gonna Be Here” to the melancholy surrender of “Time.”

Listening to the songs in this order, after all this time, is akin to walking through a world-class gallery. You feel in the presence of a genuine master at every turn.

*

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Albums are rated on a scale of one star (poor), two stars (fair), three stars (good) and four stars (excellent).


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