Human Oddities

Tom Waits

The Black Rider; Island Records

Ladies and gentlemen, Harry's Harbour is proud to present, under the Big Top tonight, Human Oddities," Tom Waits shouts at the beginning of The Black Rider. "Under the Big Top tonight, never before seen, and if you have a heart condition, please be warned..."

Over the past twenty years, Waits has successfully carved out his niche in American music. This opening reflects his awareness of this: it has the feeling of a piece of carefully crafted self-promotion.

Not content on becoming a mainstream folk artist, Waits has spent time perfecting his gravelly whiskey-and-cigarette-soaked voice, his haunting style, and his eclectic musical arrangements, and is now free to do pretty much what he chooses. This freedom has given Waits the space to make some interesting decisions. (His last release, Bone Machine, was the strangest album he's put out in years.) And The Black Rider, Waits' new recording of his contributions to a Robert Wilson production, serves up more weirdness.

Wilson, avant-garde theater person that he is, has done some pretty odd work himself. And Waits, respected musician that he is, has over the years branched out into acting (the lunatic in Bram Stoker's "Dracula," Lily Tomlin's husband in "Short Cuts," and lots of roles in assorted Jim Jarmusch movies) and soundtracking (again with Jarmusch, most recently composing the music for "Night On Earth"), but he has never attempted anything on this scale. So, whatta we got...Tom Waits collaborating with Wilson and writing music for a German orchestra...throw in William S. Burroughs singing on a track and writing a couple of others (no kidding) and whatever comes out, it's sure to be worth the money.

The Black Rider doesn't disappoint. Waits' trademark instruments are out in full force: bassoons, clarinets, accordions, organs, saws, boots, chamberlains, trains whistles...well, you get the point, and don't forget about his lurching melodies and strangely moving vocals.

Wits doesn't let the story get too much in the way of his songs. These pieces were recorded over a three-year span: some in conjunction with Wilson's work in Hamburg, some back in the U.S. with Waits' own band. At the core of Wilson's Black Rider is a Faustian tale of a peasant who makes a pact with the devil. The peasant gets a set of magic bullets, thinking they will enable himto win a marksmanship contest and with it, histrue love; however, the devil has different plans,and the poor peasant goes crazy when the lastmagic bullet kills his beloved. Waits' Far Easternmelodies, punishing staccatos, and derangedwaltzes evoke as well as anything around a poor,crazy peasant and a carnivalesque atmosphere.

Some pieces especially stand out. "November" isclassic Waits, melancholy and plaintive andbizarre all at the same time, and "Shoot the Moon"is just as good, with Waits gruffly promising thathe'll "shoot the moon right out of the sky, foryou baby."\And hearing Burroughs, seventy-nineyears old, mutter that "'t'ain't no sin to takeoff your skin and dance around in your bones" on"'T'ain't No Sin" is required listening for anyserious Burroughs fans. (Burroughs made an equallysatisfying appearance on banjoist Tony Trischka'slatest release, World Turning.)

While The Black Rider does lag in somepoints--the melody in "Just the Right Bullets" isalmost identical to the theme for Night onEarth, and this sense of deja vu is especiallypresent on the rather one-dimensionalinstrumentals--the album is definitely a treat. Nomatter how much you're heard Waits, hissemi-Coherent ravings on The Black Riderstill manages to evoke a genuine sense ofunfulfilled and tragic longing.

"Now, George was a good straight boy to beginwith," Waits mutters in "Crossroads," one of thetunes Burroughs wrote, "but there was bad blood inhim someway he got into the magic bullets and thatleads straight to Devil's work, just likemarrywanna leads to heroin."

Indeed. That about sums it up