Applying the finishing touches to a viola-and-recorder composition evocatively recreating the world of Sloppy Joe Riggs-Lattimer (a red-headed scientologist Jew known only to the residents of 1980's Pennsylvania) Sufjan Stevens decides to take a midnight stroll through the brisk fall air. Stopping to gaze lovingly at the moon, he is brutally murdered by a passing hobo who mistakes him for the Dark Prince Lucifer. In a rare moment of lucidity, the hobo decides to trade outfits with Stevens. Immediately, swallowed by the murky tides of his madness, the hobo concludes that he has in fact become the popular songwriter/geographer. Rooting through the pockets of his new sport coat, "Sufjan" finds a note concerning an imminent band practice. He attends. Chaos ensues.
"Hertfordshire Waits? Is that you?"
Tom Waits, stumbling down Vine, wearing only a trench coat and an eye-patch, did not at first hear the anxious voice. In fact, Waits was completely engrossed in his first idea of the day. He had just hazily noted that there was no longer any difference between the odor of his unwashed body and that of mid-shelf bourbon. Savoring this insight, a queasy smile on his creased and greasy face, he shuffled past the young man. His reverie was interrupted by what he took to be the buzzing of a wasp, enunciating something like his name. Waits hesitated. The buzzing recurred.
Why did this noise sound so familiar? Beginning to doubt his own sanity, he attempted to focus his sluggish mind. Was this creature addressing him?
Eyes half-closed, crouched for defense, Waits turned to face his assailant. Wasp or man, the creature must be dealt with. The whiskey-sodden singer cleared his throat. "Name's Tom. Not Jim. Tom Waits." He paused. "...Please don't sting me." A thought burbled darkly into his brain, and he decided to take a risk: "Wasp Boy, you ever been down to the LA River by the light of the pale spring moon?"
The young man, confused but resolute, responded gently. "I'm sorry, I can't seem to make out a word you're saying, Mr. Waits. You sound horrible. What's happened? Mr. Waits, we've worried so. I simply must insist that you come with me. I'll clean you up. Please, Hertfordshire - If you come with me, I won't even tell the boys back at the chamber orchestra about this whole incident. Come now. People are watching."
And so Tom slipped quite accidentally into the life of his lost twin brother, a conductor of growing talent named Hertfordshire Waits. Hertfordshire, recently lost in the wilds of Borneo while researching ethnomusicology for the Smithsonian, would have been shocked by what came about at rehearsal over the next few days.
Sorry. Couldn't help it. This album gets me all worked up. And, to be fair, Songs Without a Purpose very well might be the result of either of those fantasies. String and brass sections, piano and subtle drums arc over tortured, eerily elegant vocals. The lyrics concern, almost exclusively, death, evil, and love. Blues and Americana make brief and disturbing appearances. Fast tracks start out queasy and end beautiful. Down-tempo songs start out beautiful, swing through nightmarish, and end lovely. The slow swells in "Little Prayer No. 5," "Sweet Nothings," and "If I Was a Killer" work to moving effect. The chorus of "Little Prayer No. 6," which hinges on the phrase "I'll take you to my bloody grave," breaks my heart and really ought to break yours too - now THIS is a love song.
Actually, the album ends with a love song called "A Love Song," and it's no let down. I hate saying stuff like this, but it sort of ups the ante on the whole idea of a love song. It doesn't discuss, say, a woman. Instead, we hear about the sum of Parry's love, ALL the love he has to share. It turns out this twisted character loves the same things as any retarded hippy, but you've got my word that he's earned it. Also, "A Love Song" is, by the end of this album, kind of adorable. Kind of ideal, as an ending, like that happy tune at the end of Springsteen's Nebraska, only good.
Other than Parry's vocals, this album isn't exactly revolutionary. Beats? No. Crazy advanced production? Nope. I mean...electric guitar? Very, very little. Might even be acoustic, or a harp or some shit. But this record really reminds me why you don't have to change the rulebook to rule. These songs are simply better written - better composed - than almost anything out there. And his voice... well, yeah, okay, it's weird as fuck. Takes some getting used to. So, to those who only love music with weirdness-/newness-value, I can still heartily recommend Songs Without a Purpose.
So what would I change? Because I'm not trying to blow my 10.0 load until an album convinces me to run for president and tricks people into voting for me. Not the lyrics - they're uncomfortably beautiful; even, occasionally, tenderly funny (Especially "A Love Song"). Not the subtle instrumental work. I guess I would take a little more of the genuinely skilled composition and a little less of the vaudeville-style silliness. "You Who Braved the Storm," as a mid-album energy boost, creeps more than it does jump. And that one song with the old guy talking - "Excerpt from Mr. Tozer the Clown" - why no real vocals, Johnny? But these are small points. This guy is about as unknown as can be, at least stateside. But in Songs Without a Purpose, only his second album (and who had even heard of the first?), Parry sounds thoroughly himself. This album makes art out of some real oddness and light out of some genuine darkness.
Sloppy Joe Waits, Hertfordshire Riggs-Lattimer
9.2 / 10
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