Tom Waits' music has always had a strong element of theater to it, so it's no surprise that his work in the field never seems like a sideline venture. The simultaneously released Alice and Blood Money collect Waits' recordings of music written, in collaboration with wife and longtime muse Kathleen Brennan, for two works staged by Robert Wilson. Waits and Wilson (along with William S. Burroughs) previously collaborated on The Black Rider, released as an album in 1993, and Alice comes from roughly the same period: Its songs were first written in 1992 for a project loosely based on the relationship between Lewis Carroll and the real-life inspiration for Alice In Wonderland. But, and this is what helps the albums work so well, context is only relevant up to a point. The name "Alice" pops up more than once, and a powerful sense of yearning and impossible love permeates Alice, but Waits' songs work on their own terms. Dipping ever further into the musical past, the album marks Waits' most discernible nod to Kurt Weill to date, employing a turn-of-the-20th-century carnival's worth of antique instruments on tracks that owe as much to German cabaret as the California dives that Waits first called home. Heartbreakingly delicate even on the up-tempo numbers, Alice contains some of Waits' career's most tender moments. Unafraid to sift the gutter for beauty, Waits and Brennan immortalize the lost romance and broken dreams of an assortment of characters, including the literally two-faced protagonist of "Poor Edward," the bohemian lowlifes of "Reeperbahn" (named for Hamburg's red-light district), and the introverted Wonderland author himself. In the years since Wilson first staged Alice, its songs have developed a reputation as Waits' great lost work. Finally properly recorded and lost no more, Alice confirms that reputation. A harsher album originally written for a much harsher story, Blood Money collects tracks for Wilson's 2000 adaptation of Georg B├╝chner's 1837 play Woyzeck, based on the true story of a German soldier who was subjected to behavioral experiments and later killed his unfaithful wife. The song titles ("Misery Is The River Of The World," "Everything Goes To Hell," "God's Away On Business") make a promise on which the album delivers, employing the same sound as Alice to much darker effect. Bile-purging of the highest order dominates Blood Money, and even the quietest moments contain lines like, "I always play Russian Roulette in my head." At times it almost seems like a conscious attempt to strip away the romantic veneer with which Alice covered its "closed-down cabaret," finding only insanity and sadness amongst the dust and bones. An artist of lesser caliber might not have gotten away with it, but here Waits lets his visions complement rather than compete, hisversion of musical theater grand enough to contain both.

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