I am something of a Tom Waits obsessive. I own 8 of his albums and am familiar with a couple more; well, this may just be my favourite. The seminal 'Rain Dogs' (1985) is more varied and representative, but 'Alice' is very special indeed. Imagine Samuel Beckett's Krapp lodging with Marlene Dietrich in an opium den and perhaps you're a bit closer to imagining this album, which began life in 1992 as the soundtrack to a stage play about Lewis Carroll and his unhealthy obsession with Alice Liddell. The production and instrumentation are smokily, nostalgically evocative of '30s Europe: Waits uses strings for the first time since before 'Swordfishtrombones', and they are taut and aching. The songs are tied together by themes of impossible love and madness, but circus freaks, hipbones, roses and crows are among the other images plucked from Waits' unique lyrical wardrobe. The most up-tempo numbers are the stomping 'Kommienezuspadt', featuring German both real and imagined and Waits at his most deranged, and the tinkling 'Tabletop Joe'. Elsewhere, the mood is one of deformity and obsession made beautiful, and the sense of longing is almost unbelievably, unbearably intense. The title track, bathing in muted horns, is one of the most accessible (yet profoundly wonderful) songs in Waits' recent catalogue; 'Poor Edward' takes the same melody and manages to make it even more melancholy, thanks in part to its use of Stroh violin (a violin with a metal horn attached); it makes the hairs stand up on the back of your neck, as does 'Watch Her Disappear' and 'Lost In The Harbour'. But I'm not sure they're even the best tracks... so I'd better stop myself. Suffice to say, I cannot think of any other album that manages to be so "emotional" without ever being sentimental, cloying or posturing. You'll come up gasping for air.
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