Great Album Reviews: Beautiful Maladies (Tom Waits)

Album: Beautiful Maladies: The Island Years
Artist: Tom Waits
Genre: Folk, Singer/Songwriter, Claptrap
Year: 1998


In honor of Tom Waits’ new album Bad as Me, which comes out today, I thought it’d be a good time to look back at an earlier phase of his career.

In the last few years, Tom Waits has somehow emerged as a revered national treasure.  I say “somehow” not because this is undeserved (It is. It definitely is.), but because he’s still doing the same thing he’s been doing since about 1988, in the same way, but suddenly his prominence in pop culture and the general public awareness has exploded.  So you have heard of Tom Waits, but if you haven’t ever listened to him, a back catalog reaching back over the last thirty years makes the proper point of entry a little hazy.  If one wanted to explore Tom Waits, where would one start?  You could grab Bad as Me, which is wonderful, or…

…with Beautiful Maladies.

It’s a compilation album, encompassing the work Waits did for Island Records during the ten years from 1983-1993, and usually compilation albums suck.  This one was compiled by the man himself, however, and it attains what compilation albums (and even live albums, mostly) never do, which is coherence and a sense of narrative.  In fact, the sequencing of this album is decidedly similar to his Mule Variations from 1999.  Both albums start with a kick (“Hang on St. Christopher,” “Big in Japan”) that sets the table for what is to follow — strange instrumentation, a unique spiritual landscape somewhere between Dust Bowl America and Brothers Grimm Germany, and Tom Waits’ distinctive vocals and phrasing — before drifting into meditative, slower numbers (“Clap Hands,” “Hold On”), spoken word pieces (“Frank’s Wild Years,” “What’s He Building in There?”), nighttime meanderings through Waits’ world of invented characters fresh from burlesque shows, circuses, and boxcars (“Shore Leave,” “Eyeball Kid”), and deeply moving, closely observed examinations of real life crashing in on people in lonely, heartbreaking ways (“Strange Weather,” “November,” “I Don’t Wanna Grow Up,” and “Pony,” “Georgia Lee,” “Take it With Me”).  So not only is Beautiful Maladies a compelling album, at the end of the day, it’s a compelling Tom Waits album, that feels as organic and unified as anything else he’s done.
Waits has a reputation for his gravelly voice, and it is well earned, but people often overlook his range and diversity of vocal presentation.  On albums like Blood Money, Waits’ voice sounds like it’s on its last legs and it can be hard to listen to at times. It wasn’t until I heard subsequent albums that I realized his voice doesn’t have to sound like that. On Beautiful Maladies, there are Blood Money moments, like “I Don’t Wanna Grow Up,” but there are also moments when Waits could be characterized as even crooning (“Innocent When You Dream,” and a personal favorite, “Time”).  By creating this cross-section of a representative period of his career, he has forged a compelling primer for the many voices of Tom Waits, and it lowers the barriers to entry for people to whom his voice might sound jarring at first.  Like anything, though, the edges become smoother with repeated listens, and ultimately, this man’s enduring songcraft, his totally unique perspective on the human condition, and his alluring sense of gallows humor are the characteristics that have allowed him to capture so many people’s imaginations.  All of them are on display in Beautiful Maladies.
Find more Tom Waits albums at Myspace Music
Finally, if you have never heard Waits’ original version of “Downtown Train,” and are only familiar with Rod Stewart’s schlocky cover version, you really, really, really owe it to yourself to hear the original.

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