a monthly music column

Albums Acquired
Bonebridge, Erik Friedlander
s/t, Bon Iver
We’re Gonna Make It, Part Two, Mississippi Records Tape Series Vol. 5

Music Listened To
Blood Pt 2, Buck 65 Remix
, Erik Friedlander

Hadestown, Anais Mitchell
My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
, Kanye West

s/t, Bon Iver
s/t, Lloyd Miller & the Heliocentrics
Swordfishtrombones, Tom Waits
You Are the Blood, Castanets

Artists Seen
Iron & Wine @ Millennium Park

:: :: ::

“Perhaps this yarn is the only thing that holds this man together.”
—Tom Waits, “Swordfishtrombone

:: :: ::

We all tell tales. Some are tall, some aren’t. When I listen to music, I listen for them. They’re nearly always there. Here’s one: “She’s my true love. She’s all that I think of. Look in my wallet. That’s her. She grew up on a farm there. There’s a place on my arm where I’ve written her name next to mine. See. I just can’t live without her, and I’m her only boy. She grew up outside McHenry, in Johnsburg, Illinois.”

An interesting thing happens the closer I listen. I start to hear what I want. Add words. Add spaces. Project today’s styles into yesterday’s and vice versa. Project my heroes into every song, or my ideals onto every hero. This happens to all of us. Once you start listening to New Wave you start to hear it everywhere, and maybe even think, “Man, this stuff is coming back,” when really there is so much going on all around us all the time, in a noiseless peripheral blur, that only certain things pop. It’s when impossibly small things pop up over and over again that you should really start paying attention. Realize: the hero really is as much man as myth. Or even more.

Here’s what I’m talking about: “It’s impossible to imagine Carnivale without the twenty years of Tom Waits songs that preceded it. … From its Carny setting to its freaks to its brimstone preachers to its WWI flashbacks to its Dust Bowl setting to its strippers and roustabouts, there’s hardly an element of its production that doesn’t owe something to Tom Waits. Maybe Carnivale‘s creator never listened to Tom Waits—doesn’t matter. Because that vision that Tom created moves and breathes in the world now. It’s an entire constellation of associations—Brecht/Weill cabaret, eerie rural landscapes, amputees and dwarfs, biblical menace, clattering percussion, inverted blues. It pops up in children’s movies, … in gritty dramas like The Wire, on stage, in graphic design. The Tom Waits Carnival is now part of our common currency.”

So how far does this go? These marked bills—how far have they gotten? I’m not going to map it out. I’m on the bus, the Number 52, which only runs until 10:30. But we can start with what we know. What I’m asking is, how far? How much would you wager it goes all the way to Kanye?

:: :: ::

To begin, we explain a legend. Well, explain is an exaggeration. David Smay, the man quoted heavily above, doesn’t even attempt it, and he wrote an entire book about Waits. He begins: “Don’t expect me to tell you the truth about Tom Waits. I know you want the truth, and I don’t blame you. … [But] to enter Swordfishtrombones you need to stretch the truth, fabricate, extemporize, distort, tell tales, and indulge conceits. Tom lies with great purpose. … He intends to confound you.”

And he does. But fortunately, he’s not very good at covering his tracks. Ignoring overt covers, references, and appearances, you can take something at random, like Anais Mitchell’s folk opera, Hadestown, and hear Tom. I wasn’t even looking for him, but when Hades appeared, all gruff and greasy, I thought, Is that him? After a second, I knew it wasn’t, but it felt like he was there. In the ominous gravel of the voice, which actually belongs to Greg Brown. In the dark half-spoken invitations. In the charm and wit and wordplay: “Hey, little songbird, cat got your tongue?” It isn’t far-fetched to say that Tom is actually everywhere on this record, and if we take Smay seriously, we don’t even have to ask if Mitchell had been listening to Waits while writing it, or if she counts him as an influence. His vision moves and breathes in the world now. So Mitchell can rewrite a Greek myth as a folk tale set in Dust Bowl-era America, with the Underworld as an underground walled city and Hermes as a hobo and Orpheus as a penniless poet.

Don’t take his word for it though. Look at the evidence yourself. Look at the way “Way Down Hadestown”—the third song in the opera, a New Orleans jazz number—mimics Waits’ “Fannin Street.” Here’s the one:

There’s a crooked street in Houston town
It’s a well-worn path I’ve traveled down
Now there’s ruin in my name
I wish I never got off the train
I wished I’d listened to the words you said.
Don’t go down to Fannin Street
You’ll be lost and never found
You can never turn around
Don’t go down to Fannin Street

And the other:

Follow that dollar for a long way down
Far away from the poorhouse door
Either get to hell or to Hadestown
Ain’t no difference anymore
Way down Hadestown
Way down under the ground
Hound dog howl and the whistle blow
Train comes a-rollin’ clickety-clack
Nobody knows where that old train goes
Those who go they don’t come back

In style, they may be nothing alike, but those places sound frighteningly similar.

Look closer and you see how even Hadestown’s placement is something Waits might’ve chosen. The opening to Swordfishtrombones is a song titled “Underground.” Of the song, he says, “When I was a kid I used to stare in the gopher holes for hours and hours sometimes. I tried to think my way down through the gopher hole and imagine this kind of a ‘journey to the center of the earth’ kind of thing.” And Smay, confirming: “Tom Waits is a dirt merchant. You need all your brown words to write about [him]: whiskey, brunette, earth, scab, horseshit. Tom goes underground for three things: death, damnation, and inspiration.”

And then there’s Hades. Tom Waits didn’t cast a lot of villains in his songs, but there’s something devilish about the man, something in him that calls to mind The Deceiver. It’s probably why Waits himself has been cast as the devil in movies. But we’re still in Hadestown, and I promised you Kanye.

:: :: ::

Put on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and it seems like you’ve descended into a place much darker, much more harrowing than Hadestown. And yet, Fantasy begins with a woman setting the scene for a reimagined tale. A well-known myth respun for our modern ears. That alone recalls Mitchell’s endeavor, but tune the woman’s voice out for a second. Listen to the a cappella oohs and ahs in the background. Notice anything? It’s the same guy in both opening songs.

Justin Vernon, i.e. Bon Iver, is Orpheus in Hadestown. But he’s also featured prominently on Fantasy. Go back to the opening tracks. There, that’s him singing the duet with Mitchell. Now switch back. Lower the needle. That’s him again at the outset of Fantasy. It’s his unmistakable, and purposefully auto-tuned voice behind the woman’s spitting preface. (The auto-tune, by the way, is Vernon’s trick, not Kanye’s.) So even when not Orpheus, Vernon is something of a hero. He’s no Tom Waits, but the web he’s spun in just five years is immense and complex. In addition to these collaborations, his tracks for the Dark Was the Night compilation are fantastic, and his side project, Gayngs, is wildly inventive. He’s a 21st-century maverick. It’s no wonder Kanye picked him up.

The truth about me and Kanye is that My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy has been in heavy rotation since last November, but I’ve been too fucking scared to touch it. If anyone is still questioning whether the album’s gets at least something right, maybe there’s the answer right there. It doesn’t even need to defend itself. It’s an unconcerned bully, holding me at arm’s length, while I pummel the air. What is there to get wrong exactly? A lot I think. And I’m still intimidated enough not to toy with all the characters Kanye and his guests play throughout the album, or guess which ones are him (and which of those are tongue-in-cheek) and which ones are someone else (and who they are exactly). But I can say one of the most interesting moments of the album is the end of “Runaway,” when the strings and piano just keep chugging and chugging, under Kanye’s vocodered voice. It’s one of few places of instrumental exploration (really the only other place is in the introduction to “All of the Lights”), and it’s interesting that Kanye doesn’t give himself more moments like this. First, they’re gorgeous, and second, he said he was tearing up while he recorded it. So humming is all it takes to break down the persona. Stop talking long enough to circumvent the ego that feeds on our irrational words.

The human voice holds a revered place for Kanye, at least on Fantasy. The tracks are built on it, men’s and women’s, layered over one another and frosted with effects and sitting high on a stand. If it’s not exactly an homage to choral music, it does pay its respects to gospel. “Devil in a New Dress.” “POWER.” “Hell of a Life.” In addition to being armed with that biblical menace Smay attributed to Waits, each of these songs feature the human voice in fantastic ways. Mostly without stories, just direction. Then there’s the complete opposite in “Who Will Survive in America,” which flows like a pulse from “Lost in the World.” Gil Scott-Heron uses his voice not as an instrument but as a weapon. Yet another way to tell a tale. It’s angry and ugly and raw and profound. It’s metaphorical like Hadestown. It’s spoken, like “Swordfishtrombone.” It’s political like Lloyd Miller in his “Diatribe.”

:: :: ::

Mapping those points where Tom Waits’s image-currency has changed hands, you eventually wind up back where you started. Vernon took something from Kanye when they spent time in the studio together. Bon Iver has the same depth Fantasy does, and I have little doubt that Vernon stole some of Kanye’s production tricks to achieve it. But Tom Waits shared something too: his collaborator Colin Stetson, who played bass saxophone on Orphans and Blood Money. Music is really just theater; its cast the revolving door of musicians who are perpetually exiting stage left. Journeys collide. Tales are told over and over and who knows which ones are true.

Now some say he’s doin’ the obituary mambo
Now some say that he’s hangin’ on the wall
Perhaps this yarn is the only thing
That holds this man together

Some say that he was never here at all
Some say they saw him down in Birmingham
Sleepin’ in a boxcar goin’ by
And if you think that you can tell a bigger tale
I swear to god you’d have to tell a lie

:: :: ::


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