Tom Waits' next pair of albums - the 18th and 19th of a career with more left hooks than Muhammad Ali's - won't be released until Tuesday. But the gravel-voiced singer is already pondering his next move.
"I'm going to tap into the kids market next," Waits vows in a phone interview from the Los Angeles home he shares with his wife and musical collaborator, Kathleen Brennan, and their three children. "I got a fan letter from a 9-year-old girl in Indiana. She wrote, 'I love your voice, you sound like something between a cherry bomb and a clown. P.S. I got in trouble playing your records at school. Please call my teacher.'
"I called the teacher and left a message," Waits says, "but she didn't return my call."
Waits is getting most of his calls returned these days. After 29 years of profound, and sometimes profoundly disturbing, music-making, this bard of the misbegotten finds himself a platinum-selling artist for the first time. Not that success has dimmed his penchant for perversity.
On Tuesday, the albums Alice and Blood Money will be released. Originally conceived as the scores for a pair of Robert Wilson plays, staged in 1992 and 2000, respectively, the albums were recorded concurrently last summer with an assortment of oddball instruments and adventurous musicians. It's highly unusual for an artist to release a double CD, let alone two distinct albums, on the same day. But Waits has earned the chance to indulge himself.
His last album, Mule Variations (1999), sold a million copies, charted higher than any of his previous releases (No. 30 on the Billboard album chart) and snagged his second Grammy Award, for best contemporary folk album (which sounds like yet another failed attempt to categorize an essentially uncategorizable artist's music). But if this late-arriving commercial success gave Waits greater license to release two albums at once, he shrugs it off.
"If you're gonna heat up the stove, you might as well make more than one pancake," he says. "It's a lot of work to go into a studio, mobilize a lot of people and equipment. So I figured once we got in there ... let's do another one while the motor is running. Eventually, no one will care what day they came out on. If it's a good idea, I'll take credit for it. If it isn't, I'll blame it on somebody else."
Even as Waits shovels the sarcasm, he makes it clear that he was never completely satisfied with the way the songs written by him and Brennan were performed in stage productions.
"Writing songs for other people is just mortifying at times. You stand by and watch other people completely butcher them," he says. "Sometimes they're completely elevated. But I figured I could improve upon most of them."
Blood Money comes from Wilson's staging of the 19th-century play Woyzeck, about a German soldier driven to madness and murder. It premiered in Denmark in 2000. Alice is a lyrical meditation on the relationship between author Lewis Carroll and young Alice Liddell, the girl who inspired Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. The play was first staged in Germany in 1992, with an orchestra assembled by Waits.
"The best part about it was that we had a woman from Moscow who played the theremin who was the granddaughter of Leon Theremin, the man who invented the instrument," Waits recalls of the original production. "She was like a little Russian doll, and she was just amazing. You'd think Leon Theremin's granddaughter would have a rosewood or ebony theremin with inlaid mother of pearl, but hers looked like a hot plate. It was painted in a drab color with somebody's initials carved into it, and a car aerial protruding from the box. Inside, all the electrical connections and circuitry were attached with cut-up pieces of a beer can, folded over the wires. She was a true Russian, the musical equivalent of the good butcher who uses every part of the cow."
Waits' obsession with misfit instruments began in the early '80s, soon after he met Brennan, who encouraged him to explore a wider spectrum of sounds. Thus were born the groundbreaking works swordfishtrombones (1983) and Rain Dogs (1985), which brought a new dimension to his singer-songwriter persona. Once a boozy balladeer who specialized in crafting two types of songs - "grim reapers and grand weepers" - Waits pioneered what could only be called "avant-cabaret" on those '80s albums.
To give Alice and Blood Money their distinctive characters, Waits introduced a few more oddities to his sound-making arsenal: a stroh violin (a violin crossed with a brass horn), a pod (a four-foot seed pod from Indonesia, used as a percussion instrument) and a 1929-vintage pneumatic calliope.
Where does one buy a pneumatic calliope, with 57 whistles?
"In Iowa, actually," Waits says. "Back of a flatbed truck. It was a small, red-suspender band, their sleeves held up with elastic, wearing straw hats. Greg Cohen, who's married to my wife's sister and has been my bass player for many years, asks if it's for sale. 'Absolutely.' So he gives me the phone number. Says his wife would kill him if he purchased a calliope. So he decided to let my wife kill me, instead.
"I paid two grand for it, and it needed work. It's just like buying a used car ... a background in car repair would be more advantageous than a background in music in working with it, because it's all hoses and pipes. It took four guys to carry it ... when we played it in the studio, people for miles around complained of the noise."
The instrument's distinctive wail, along with the swat of the seed pod and the chiming of marimbas, bells and gongs, set the otherworldly tone for Blood Money. The album is a descent into Dante's Inferno with a circus carny as a tour guide, by turns sinister and sarcastic. Alice is mellower and dreamier, a chamber orchestra Fantasia that is, at heart, a love story set to music - albeit a tragic and disturbing one: "And my eyeballs roll this terrible terrain/ We're all inside a decomposing train/ And your eyes will die like fish/ And the shore of your face will turn to bone."
These are beautiful songs that tell the listener terrible things. At times they sound like transmissions from another world, where dusty 78-rpm records spin in the antique parlor of the imagination. At other moments, this mystical weirdness cuts with avant-garde force.
"The best comment on a piece of music is usually made through another piece of music," Waits says of his collaboration with Brennan. "Songwriters don't go to school; they sit around and listen to other people's records. You stick your ear in the speaker and try to figure out how somebody did something. It's like studying footprints or trails or ancient maps.
"Usually what you hear is the inaccurate attempt to emulate someone else, and then you try to emulate that. Because what intrigues me is not the emulation, but the possibility of surprise."
Greg Kot is pop music critic for the Chicago Tribune.