Tom Waits - Blue Valentine - Classic Albums - Reviews - Soundblab

Tom Waits - Blue Valentine

by Kevin Orton Rating:10 Release Date:1978-08-25
Tom Waits - Blue Valentine
Tom Waits - Blue Valentine

Remasters of Tom Wait’s classic 1970’s work, are long overdue. I’ve had the same CD’s since the early 90’s and they all sound like a distant echo under glass compared to these fantastic Anti reissues. Among all the remasters in this series, from Closing Time to Heart Attack & Vine, Blue Valentine stands out as the finest used car in the lot. In my opinion, even surpassing the undisputed milestone of, Small Change. Its on this 1978 release where Waits’ barfly balladeer and hobo Beat Poet routine is truly distilled.

As fine as his debut, Closing Time is, Waits hadn’t quite yet defined his persona. With Small Change he found it in spades. His now damaged voice, lending raspy gravitas to his brand of after hours, neon noir.  Its follow up, Foreign Affairs, however, saw Waits slip into self-parody. Its heavy on atmosphere but the songs decidedly take a backseat to the ambitious production.  Blue Valentine found him stepping back from such excesses, delivering a razor-sharp vision of Tinseltown and its dark, raging underbelly. Presented in the audio and lyrical equivalent of Cinemascope and Technicolor.

The album begins with a breathtaking stab at Westside Story’s signature tune, ‘Somewhere’. Waits’ intimate vocals providing beautiful contrast to cinematic, soaring strings. It was a ballsy move and one that paid off beyond fans’ wildest expectations. Proof that despite the gravelly voice, Waits could croon as well as Sinatra.

Soon after, Waits dumps you off at the corner of Seedy and Noir with ‘Red Shoes By The Drugstore’. Where danger hides in plain sight and nothing is revealed. “He told her to wait by the magazines,” he rasps. A song narrated more by a rumor than a man. One with an obsession for our hapless ingenue’s red shoes. As for what lies behind that obsession, dead men tell no tales.

Waits later quipped he wrote only two kinds of songs: Grim Reapers and Grand Weepers. If ever there were a Grand Weeper, it would be ‘Christmas Card From A Hooker In Minneapolis’. The kind of girl who cuts a tear with a rusty stiletto. Only the hard of heart can walk away from this one without a lump in their throat. And only Waits can pull the rug out from under sentimentality--- with sentimentality. In terms of Waits classics, this one ranks right up there with ‘Tom Traubert’s Blues’.

‘Romeo Is Bleeding’ is a B-picture snapshot of epic proportions. A gangster murder ballad that summons a hundred and one Cagney flicks. Reimagined in a Greaser’s paradise. The wound under our hero’s Zoot suit, slowly re-tailoring it into a wooden kimono.  Elsewhere, the gritty, ominous ‘$29.00’ and ‘Wrong Side of The Road’ do their very best to leave you ‘Whistlin’ Past The Graveyard’. But leave it to ‘A Sweet Little Bullet From A Pretty Blue Gun’ to knock the fedora off the gumshoe’s noggin before the fatal blow of, ‘Blue Valentines’.  A spare, lonesome number that is part love letter, part poison pen. It’s the “thistle in the kiss”. The “tattooed broken promise”. The “burgler that can break a rose’s neck.” The kind of song that brings up old times and has you looking in your rearview mirror. Haunting as it gets.

Last but certainly not least in order of appearance, is ‘Kentucky Ave’. Quite possibly my favorite Tom Waits ballad. Don’t quote me on that, but it’s up there with his finest. Keeping a place warm in the hobo jungle for the likes of ‘Time’ and ‘Broken Bicycles’. A shiv to the gut ode to Childhood Lost. To borrow a phrase from T.S. Eliot, a stunning “raid on the inarticulate”. I never walk away from this one unscathed. Yet, it’s sorrow never saddens so much as inspires.  One listen and this is what they mean by, “a heartbreaking work of staggering genius”.

If each album in this remaster series is a rusty penny from heaven shining in the gutter, surely Blue Valentine shines the brightest. Now that Anti has finally given Waits’ Asylum years a long overdue makeover, no self- respecting fan can ask for anything more.  Except maybe, do the same for Swordfish Trombones---and give the bum’s rush to rest of Waits’ Island catalog.   

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