Why I Love What I Love: 30 Favorite Recordings, 2000-2009 (Part IV)
12. Tom Waits
Real Gone (2004)
I’m still not sure that time has quite caught up with this one to give it the reputation is deserves; while all the young whippersnappers tripped over one another, trying to outdo themselves in terms of recording innovation and musical ingenuity, an old pro named Tom Waits rasped and cackled his way through this, arguably the strangest and most out-there album of the decade, made by who else but rock’s strangest, most out-there personality. If it’s something fresh and experimental you’re after, forget the indie kids; this thing crackles with awesome weirdness, Waits’ hippest and edgiest recording, taking an ongoing fascination with human beatboxing to a surreal and totally kick-ass extreme. But for all his inspired madness, what makes Waits a treasure is that it always comes back to the songs, and for every raspy, blood-spattered rave-up here, there’s an equally mesmerizing exercise in acoustic, front-parlor folk.
Real Gone is also Waits’ Americana album, strange though that may sound; all the spectres of the blues and gothic folk that have long haunted his music are finally released as actual ghosts from American history. His warning not to go into the barn is a metaphysical incantation; the barn could be the backpages of our own history, soiled in the kinds of unsightly mistakes we’d just as soon forget. That the past isn’t done with us yet– that it’s never really gone– is the philosophy that informs the album, making it as much a politcal album of uncommon depth and sophistication as it is a prayer for deliverance. Waits’ character in “Sins of the Father” vows to break the cycle of sin and misery, and you hope– for your own sake, for the sake of all of us– that he’s able to do it.
11. Joe Henry
Joe Henry creates and sustains a metaphor throughout this entire album, and it’s one of the most astonishing and sophisticated feats of songwriting you’ll ever hear: There are songs about troubled lovers and songs about a wayward nation, and at times it’s hard to tell which is which. This is masterful songwriting, a richly layered sequence in which Willie Mays emerges as the perfect symbol for a tarnished American dream, in which songs about romance are really songs about politics, but they’re all really song about moral decay and the awful grace of God. Indeed, few recordings wrestle with the Divine with the same theological rigor as this one, and even fewer so elegantly springboard from politics to Providence. Musically, it’s an elegant and deceptively simply hall of mirrors in which the arrangements reflect the songs, and the songs all reflect each other.
10. The Hold Steady
Separation Sunday (2005)
The a capella prologue that announces Separation Sunday as a high-caliber concept album is a joke about drugs– until you get to the record’s conclusion, and you realize that it’s really about Jesus, and that it’s dead serious. That’s all it takes to tip you off that this is the most kick-ass Christian rock album ever, and I’m only slightly kidding about the “Christian rock” part. Yes, The Hold Steady are indie darlings that curse and drink and write about drugs and hookers, but here, as ever, they’re playing with holy fire: Separation Sunday is a concept album about Easter, about prodigal sons and daughters, about the wages of sin and the glory of rising from the dead. Call is resurrection rock, if you will. It’s also a less polished, less song-oriented album than their later works, but no less complex: The record plays less like a set of singles than it does a maze of intersecting rythms and riffs, storylines and character arcs, jokes and Bible references and slurred barstool wisdom. It’s totally awesome and addicting, and in the end profoundly inspiring, which is why it’s this album that wins top rock and roll honors from me in the 00s.
09. Tom Waits
Orphans: Brawlers, Bawlers and Basterds (2006)
This one’s got it all: The gravelly, Howlin’ Wolf blues. The sentimental piano weepers. The beatboxing, the inverted country and gospel, the junkyard mayhem. The stand-up comedy. This is the only record that has it all– everything that makes Tom Waits an icon, a legend, a treasure. In terms of vision and creative sprawl, nothing else from the last ten years can match its generosity. In terms of standards, no other three-disc set is nearly so flawless and essential. I can’t imagine ever sitting down to write a serious review of this set, because there’s just too much to talk about– the humor, the heartache, the politics, the mythmaking, the blues. It’s a study in total mastery, in the kind of mad brilliance that comes from this level of devotion not only to performance, but to songwriting craft, which makes it not just the desert island Tom Waits collection, but a truly landmark recording.
Kid A (2000)
Look, I know that, at this point, I’m not going to win any indie cred, much less impress anyone with my originality, for including this among my favorites-of-the-decade picks; by now, to say that Kid A is the defining statement of the aughts is a horrid cliche, but for good reason– for sheer groundbreaking, epoch-defining invention and artistic import, Stankonia is the only thing that even comes close. But I don’t just love this record for what it means to the music biz; I love it for what it means to me. When the album arrived, it was without context, and it didn’t play by any of the rules we thought rock records were supposed to play by. It was a willfully difficult puzzle, an album that required not just active listening, but flat-out hard work to really unravel. And I worked at it. This was perhaps my earliest experience with really pouring myself into a recording in an effort to truly understand it, and that hard work has yielded an undying appreciation for the craft and complexity on display.
And it’s also led me to this conclusion: That for all the talk of technology, alienation, and dehumanization that accompanies this album, what has perhaps been neglected is that, at its heart, it’s an exquisitely soulful record– music that is, for all its bluster, distinctly human. It’s not just a critique of the ways in which the human spirit is commodified and repressed. It’s about how it makes us feel. It’s about how we respond to it. It’s about how it affects our souls. It’s an angry and sad record borne from empathy and compassion. That’s why Kid A isn’t just a record for indie rock snobs, or for people who think computers are slowly trying to kill us. Simply put: It’s a record for human beings.
07. Joe Henry
Blood from Stars (2009)
The word “Americana” has already come up a few times on this list, and indeed, a lot of my musical wrestling has been over the culture that I’ve inherited– the tangled web of contradictions both great and wretched that have been passed down to me. Joe Henry’s Blood from Stars is one of the best maps I’ve found for unraveling the mess of politics and religion, song and story, triumph and tragedy that has always found a natural home in the blues. That’s where Henry looks here for his inspiration, to a language unvarnished and true, and what he finds is familiar and shocking at once: Blood from Stars is an album about light being squeezed forth from darkness, about an America that’s less visible now but haunts us still, about the hand of God in all its terror and might. And Henry? As ever, he’s the wonderfully wry romantic, the song-and-dance man whose optimism is rooted in love both earthly and divine. He sounds more resolved than ever, recalling the spectacular affirmation he made on Civilians two years prior: “The worst of this might still, somehow, make me a better man.”