I listen to the Thrice record much more than the Tom Waits record although the way Tom works "Auld Lang Syne" into "New Year's Eve" at the end of his record is musically genius. I remember leaving a New Year's Eve party shortly after the clock struck twelve and drove around listening to that song for about 45 minutes about two weeks after I bought the record. I later read an article on some terrible music blog about what the song you listen to on New Year's Eve says about you. "The New Year" by Death Cab for Cutie was on that list. So was "What Are You Doing New Year's Eve" by nearly everyone ever but mostly by Ella Fitzgerald. "A Long December" by Counting Crows -- which isn't really a song about a new year at all but was about a girl getting hit by a car -- was also on there. Anyway, some writer called Tom's song, "perfect for the sad bastard." I think I listened to it about 9 times that night.
Here's the thing about Tom Waits: he comes up with these utterly manic moments. Actually, most of his songs where he doesn't play keys (either piano or accordion) sound like a tractor dying. There's this awful crunch. Maybe the tractor ran over some cinder blocks. Maybe like the time Johnny Cash drove his tractor into the lake in Hendersonville. Whatever the death of a tractor sounds like to you, that's what Tom Waits does with his more aggressive songs. And that's what Kanye West did a few months ago but with a more expensive tractor.
I don't buy the Kanye-West-as-a-badass image for even a split second. Unless selling out plain white tshirts at $120 a pop makes one a badass these days. Maybe a badass marketer. Maybe a badass salesman. But not a real badass. He probably doesn't know anything about fascia and soffit repair or about riding an old motorcycle. Selling expensive tshirts, though. He's got that down. So it is with
Sonically, it's so far ahead of anything that I've heard this year. It's like Kanye listened to Tom's "Bad As Me" record and said, "Imagine what this album would feel like with a budget." And that's what he did. Put on a pair of headphones, turn this shit up to 11 and prove me wrong. But as prodigious as the backing on tracks like "Hold My Liquor" and "Black Skinhead" sound (they're both borderline virtuoso) his lyrics stall time and time and time again. Like that dying tractor.
Am I really to believe Kanye's plight about having to "pick the cotton [him]self" he laments in "New Slaves"? I hope not. Actually, if he picked the cotton himself for those $120 tshirts he's selling, then they might be worth it. Am I to believe that God actually co-wrote "I Am A God"? Am I supposed to be able to tell the difference between him whining about the not getting croissants delivered to his table fast enough ("I Am A God") and what actually approaches, well, genuine badassery (all of "On Sight")?
And then there's "Blood on the Leaves" which samples Nina Simone's "Strange Fruit. Easily the most conflicted track on this record. There are a handful of artists who've tried something like this before (Greg Dulli, I'm looking squarely at you here). Two verses of what appears to be genuine longing for someone. Two verses of love gone wrong. Three verses of drugs. And then a verse about instagram replete with mentions of not one but two hashtags. All with the phrase "swinging in the summer breeze" repetitively droning through the background. "Blood on the Leaves" ends and I think "Does he love this woman? What could have happened if she wouldn't have run naked through the lobby? Drugs killed whatever they could have been. I need to check my instagram feed real quicklike. Oh... That's a cute baby. You get one of those little heart thingies. I like your picture of the sunset. Can I write a snarky comment on your photo of your really cute sister and hope that she sees it because dating at 33 is a weird thing to be doing?" And before I know it, I've stopped paying attention to whatever Kanye was spewing about but I'm still bobbing my head in time with the rhythm.
So what to make of this record? I've digested it for two months now and while I marvel at it being sonically astute, lyrically it makes about as much sense as Johnny Cash driving his tractor into the lake. It's art. I get it. But at the end of the day all you have is a dead tractor.