I have to admit, I’m not always excited about the idea of a single artist recording the entire soundtrack to a film. It’s usually not the most career-defining moment for a musician. Sure, there are exceptions – but for every Aimee Mann and Magnolia, there are at least nine or ten Princes and Batman soundtracks.
But obviously Francis Ford Coppola had something grander in mind when he approached Tom Waits about recording the soundtrack to his 1982 film One From the Heart. Coppola was inspired by Waits’ duet with Bette Midler on “I Never Talk to Strangers” from 1977’s Foreign Affairs and he, ideally, wanted the duo to record this album together, telling the story of two angry halves of a marriage who go wondering off into the Las Vegas night to find themselves.
Fortunately, Midler wasn’t available and in her stead, Tom snagged country chanteuse Crystal Gayle. On paper, this sounds like not such a great idea. Gayle’s voice is one of the smoothest and most pop-friendly in country music. The idea of the woman who sang “Don’t It Make My Brown Eyes Blue” dueting with the barb-throated Waits just doesn’t play out in your head. The results, however, were phenomenal, and the One From the Heart soundtrack serves as a crucial linchpin between the first phase of Waits’ career and the second act that would start with 1983’s Swordfishtrombones.
The album is built around some of the most orchestrated music Waits has ever composed – think about his version of West Side Story‘s “Somewhere” from Blue Valentine. Swelling strings, horns and a jazz combo construct the songs on the first side that range from the sentimental (“Once Upon a Town,” “Broken Bicycles“) to the snarky and humorous (“Picking Up After You”). But the second half of the album is the sharpest. The two most winning ballads – the overtly sincere “I Beg Your Pardon” and the note perfect “This One’s From the Heart” – help bookend the side. This half of the album also includes the tracks that most resemble where Waits was heading with his music in the coming years. “Little Boy Blue” recalls a hybrid of his scat-fueled spoken word pieces and the instrumentation that would become dominant in the coming run of albums. The instrumental pieces “The Tango” and “Circus Girl”, and the drums and bass driven “You Can’t Unring a Bell” foretell the fractured burlesque of Franks Wild Years.
But there has only ever been one song on this record for me – it’s also the shortest lyrical song on the album. “Take Me Home” is nothing more than Tom sitting at the piano, not singing, and Crystal Gayle leaving anyone within earshot mentally, if not literally, sobbing. The narrator’s basic declaration of her intense love, her sincere regret and diminutive familiars leave you wondering how anyone could turn someone away after they sang a song like that to you. As the album’s close, it couldn’t be a more devastating and redemptive moment.
While not the first album people are likely to mention when discussing the Waits canon, One From The Heart is worthy of inclusion in his best work. As a display of his skill in working with other musicians and singers and in composing, and as a work looking both backward and forward in his career, this album is a sincere delight. words/ j. neas
Related: Documentary video about Waits’ work with Coppola in preparing the songs for the film.
MP3: Tom Waits :: You Can’t Unring A Bell
MP3: Tom Waits :: This One’s From the Heart (w/ C. Gayle)
Amazon: Tom Waits – One From The Heart
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Video of Waits singing “Take Me Home” live on a French television show – 1982.