I never talk to strangers: Tom Waits MP3s
Photo by Michael O'Brien
Given Tom Waits' clear penchant for spoken word, it's curious that his efforts don't receive more attention. Even among Waits' gruff, idiosyncratic oeuvre, they can't help sticking out as oddballs. I can't think of too many (any?) artists on his level who so often include a spoken word performance, or who do it so brazenly. He has to realize the riskiness of it; he probably also revels in that very risk.
Because pieces like "What's He Building?" from Mule Variations can't help instantly switching up the mood and momentum of the album. I'd say that it serves as an intermission, a breather, among all the bizarreness and emotion around it, but it doesn't really. "What's He Building?" provides no letup, just another variation and mutation of the album's themes. If anything, it only ratchets up the malevolence. The word "Indonesia" has never sounded so sinister and suspicious in its existence. The industrial backbeat pollutes our brains with possible if grotesque answers to the titular question. Other than perhaps "Filipino Box-Spring Hog," it's Waits' showiest, most confident moment on Mule. He's so arty and theatrical on it, he practically purrs.
The more you think about it though, the more it makes sense. The spoken words are an ideal outlet for Waits, another manifestation of his many talents. With his well-documented love of film and theater, these interludes give him a new way to act. And there's also his past as a whiskey-drenched Hopperian (Edward, with a side of Dennis) bohemian in the '70s, which probably disposed him to songs that can be spoken as much as sung (see "Step Right Up" for one).
He's continued his devotion to speech to this day, closing out the recent Orphans with a story. It's one of the best tracks on the entire three discs, and more shining proof of his verbal skills. The story is in turns funny, sentimental, sweet and tricky, every one of which he nails. He delivers the few punchlines with Borscht Belt timing and his obvious pleasure in storytelling is so infectious it's epidemic. In one anecdote, Waits delivers what other singers can't do in whole albums; of course for him, that's just a part of the conversation.
* MP3: "Missing My Son" - Tom Waits from Orphans [Buy it]
* MP3: "What's He Building?" - Tom Waits from Mule Variations [Buy it]
* MP3: "The Ocean Doesn't Want Me" - Tom Waits from Bone Machine [Buy it]
Tags: Tom Waits, Orphans, Mule Variations, spoken word, MP3