The Black Rider

Tom Waits

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The Black Rider Review

by William Ruhlmann

Tom Waits collaborated with director Robert Wilson and librettist William Burroughs on the musical stage work The Black Rider in 1990. A variation on the Faust legend, the 19th century German story allowed Waits to indulge his affection for the music of Kurt Weill and address one of his favorite topics of recent years, the devil. Waits had proven an excellent collaborator when he worked with director Francis Ford Coppola on One from the Heart, making that score an integral part of the film. Here, the collaboration and the established story line served to focus Waits' often fragmented attention, lending coherence and consistency. He then had three years to adapt the score into a record album in which he did most of the singing and writing (though Burroughs contributed, singing one song and writing lyrics to three), and he used the time to come up with his best recording in a decade, a varied set of songs that work whether or not you know the show. (Seven of the 20 tracks were instrumentals.) Waits used the word "crude" to describe his working method several times in the liner notes, and a crude performing and recording style continued to appeal to him. But the kind of chaos that can sometimes result from that style was reined in by the bands he assembled in Germany and Los Angeles to record the score, so that the recordings were lively without being off-puttingly primitive.

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