Jul 10, 2002 at 12:00 am

Tom Waits fans are used to having their man all to themselves. It’s been fairly easy so far. Waits has been perfecting his role as the irresistibly creepy medicine man for nearly 30 years. He’s the kind of sly huckster who attracts not just the gullible, but also those who enjoy being deceived. Interesting stuff? You bet. Mainstream? Not a chance.

So when Waits released two new albums last month, it seemed something had changed. Suddenly, the reclusive Waits is ubiquitous. In magazines; on National Public Radio; even on David Letterman’s couch, sharing stories about weird field trips with his kids.

Waits fanatics rejoiced, but many wondered: Has Tom Waits sold out? Or even worse … has he gone soft?

They needn’t worry. Along with 1992’s Bone Machine, Waits’ Alice and Blood Money are the darkest works of his career. The two new albums are ideal companion pieces, twin musings on the same themes of mortality and unsteady faith. Both were originally conceived as separate musical theater scores, but that lineage is just an interesting footnote. Blood Money is the rougher of the two, all battery acid and spit; Alice is more reflective and serene.

Admittedly, there’s nothing exactly new here for Waits: The world is still cruel. Death is inevitable. Heaven is just a dream. God might exist … though if he does, he’s apparently out of town.

But if Waits doesn’t kick up any new dirt, he does offer his most perceptive look at the mud beneath the gravel. Occasional Waits fans be warned — if you haven’t caught up with our man Tom since his Heart of Saturday Night drinking-song days, these albums might not be for you. “Why be sweet, why be careful, why be kind?” Waits asks at the beginning of a song titled “Everything Goes to Hell.” Yep, this one actually hurts.

For years, Waits has relied on audible parlor tricks to dazzle listeners while sneaking in his darker themes. Yet on both of these new releases, this aural smoke-and-mirrors serves the songs, instead of the other way around. For instance, Blood Money’s opening track starts with dusty boot stomps. “Misery’s the river of the world,” he croaks. “Everybody row.”


But are these records enjoyable? In their own perverse way, absolutely. Like any good carny, Tom Waits knows the secret behind his lurid pitch: Everyone loves a good scare — and the best frights don’t come from the fun house. They’re right here inside you and me.

E-mail Adam Druckman at [email protected].