This album is beautiful, and restrained, and brilliantly executed. It is a masterwork of melodies that are haunting, dark, self-consciously perverse and above all else, moving. Ostensibly it is about the love between Charles Dodgson, aka Lewis Carroll, and Alice Liddell. But really, the emotions is conveys and the feelings it evokes are universal. The musical accompaniment to Tom Waits' crooning here is without guitars; he only uses saxophones, violins, and other "soft" instruments. On first listen, I was disappointed in that -- I felt he was restraining himself, but then I realized that it fits the mood and creates the appropriate, almost darkly Victorian atmosphere.
The opening track is the hook, the beauty that draws you in. It's a story of deep and misguided obsession, told with just light piano and saxophone accompaniment. "And I must be insane / To go skating on your name / And by tracing it twice / I fell through the ice / Of Alice." Waits restrains his voice, coming across more mournful than usual.
The album begins to explore the madness of obsession further, with "Everything You Can Think," dark and haunting. The standard Tom Waits delivery returns here, sort of that mucusy-spitting sound, but it works with the lyrics quite well.
The beauty just continues; "Flower's Grave" and "No One Knows I'm Gone" are both tragic and haunting, speaking of loneliness and desperation. The instruments shine brightly here; the echoing melody tapped out on piano in "Flower's Grave" is perfect -- restrained and melodic, feeling slow and deliberate, much like the lyrics.
"Kommienezuspadt" is the closest thing this album gets to an outright rocker. The grinding, clanking in the background, the german words, the delivery -- it all adds up to a grinding, violent sounding track that completely distracts from the fact that it appears to be delivered by none other than the White Rabbit himself. "And I can't be late!" It's either a very strong track or an annoyance; I've come to appreciate it because it builds very well, adding layers and saxophone punctuations and ultimately descends into theme of madness that appears throughout the album.
"Table Top Joe" is a weak track. Tom Waits has been described as "all character, no substance" and that certainly applies here. It's not dreadful, but it's not an every-time track, either. It may just be my inability to see the meaning, but the track feels out of place here, particularly following the exquisitely beautiful tragedy "Poor Edward."
"Watch Her Disappear" is staggering in its intensity; the imagery, the obsession, the need, the loneliness. It's not quite a spoken-word track, and it's not quite musical, but it works on so many levels. It's a short glimpse into the mind of a desperately obsessed man, and it sends chills down my spine.
The rest of the album is exquisite; "I'm Still Here" is heart-wrenching, better than any similarly themed song from Chicago. The last three songs on the album may be the most beautiful music Tom Waits has ever produced -- "Fish & Bird" is a beautiful fable of impossible love. The music all comes together here, providing four minutes of perfect beauty, of stark futility but poignant and impressive passion "Barcarolle" is the perfect expression of depression, acceptance of the impossibility, the hopelessness of the obsession that tortures our narrator. "And the children are all gone into town / To get candy and we are alone in the house here / And your eyes fall down on me."
This album is possibly the most beautiful Tom Waits has ever done; it may not be his best, because he certainly constrained himself musically here, but it is his most passionate and moving and tragic -- his starkest expression of passion and despair.