If you dare me to name my top five Christmas albums I’ll do it:
- Nat King Cole
- James Taylor
- The Temptations
- Mariah Carey
- And the Muppets
I imagine most of you can name your top five too, but did you know I can also list my top five Advent albums?
(Don’t act like you’re not impressed)
At the top of list sits the one and only Tom Waits.
Waits is an acquired taste. He’s a junkyard poet with a voice like whiskey and rock salt. Much of his music can be described as noisy, and that’s just fine by him, but his masterpiece is his 1999 album Mule Variations which some refer to as his apocalypse record. To me, it’s 16 tracks of Advent pressed on wax.
Track one opens with a guy whose thirst for the big life hasn’t panned out. He’s got the house, but not the deed. He’s got the horn, but not the reed. He’s got the clothes, but not the face. He’s got the style, but not the grace. But all he can see and sing is “I’m big in Japan. I’m big in Japan.”
It’s downhill from there. Track two finds him on the outs singing “I’m on a black elevator, goin’ down. Little Joe from Kokomo, it rattles to the ground. The dice are laughin’ at the man that he throwed. I’m rollin’ over to the lowside of the road.”
Wait’s songs pick up from the low side of the road and seem to just get lower. Hard labor and hard drinking follow with tracks four and six, and then the album slogs through five more tracks of grim vignettes. There are drunks, prostitutes, criminals, and side show acts. Stories of excess, of exile, of death, of wilderness, and of woe.
Some are comical. Others are despairing. One sets a feast for lost souls, gathered around a hog grilled on a hot boxspring. Another is a somber tune about a guy who’s way too far from home and feeling it. One track is pure tragedy, a true story about a real woman, a girl, who died far too young and all alone, and no one escapes implication for her death, not even God.
Amid the first 15 tracks of grit and grime, what Waits gives us is Advent, a bizarre and dizzying tour through lost worlds and the lost people in them.
Zephaniah, like most of the Advent prophets, warns people about the low side of the road. He writes of a coming day of the Lord, an apocalypse of reckoning for all their sins. They’ve chased after glory and fame, they’ve abandoned their homeland and the law of the Lord, and their time is running out. They have no way back home.
The great day of the Lord is near,Zephaniah 1:14-15
near and hastening fast
That day will be a day of distress and anguish, a day of ruin and devastation,
a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness,
Zephaniah warns of utter destruction: exile, death, wilderness, and woe, and he does it all in verse. It’s fifty-six verses of this. Almost three whole chapters of apocalypse in poetic detail, grit and grime, a bizarre and dizzying tour through a lost world and the lost people in it.
We’re lead to think it’s all over and all is lost until, out of nowhere, verse fifty-seven comes. Verse fift-seven and following literally sound like they were written by someone else (and they may have been), tacked on like a late-breaking surprise ending:
Sing aloud, O daughter Zion;Zephaniah 3, selected verses
shout, O Israel!
Rejoice and exult with all your heart,
O daughter Jerusalem!
The Lord has taken away the judgments against you,
The king of Israel, the Lord, is in your midst;
The Lord, your God, is in your midst, [and making promises]
I will remove disaster from you,
I will deal with all your oppressors
I will save the lame, and gather the outcast,
I will change their shame into praise
At that time I will bring you home.
The thing about that word apocalypse is it’s a neutral word. We think of a day of reckoning, of Waitsian hellscapes, but “apocalypse” actually just means a “revealing,” a peeling back of the curtain to disclose the truth (which hardly ever shows up how we expect it will).
When the Lord came to be in our midst, he appeared like a character in a Tom Waits song.
Born on the edge of a po-dunk town to a teenage mother and her boyfriend in a barn by the side of the road. Didn’t have much, but his daddy taught him his way around a lathe and he got by. Then around 33 he decided he had something to say and so he left home to become a traveling preacher. The well-to-do’s chased him off so he made his bed with drunks and prostitutes, criminals and side show acts.
He had about a three year run but his last days slow down to a few grim vignettes. There was the final feast for him and about a dozen lost souls lounging in an attic room. Then a solo scene in a garden where he prays because he knows he’s too far from home and he’s feeling it. Then pure tragedy, a true story about a real man. He died far too young, and all alone, and no one escapes implication for his death, not even God.
We’re lead to think it’s all over and all is lost until, out of nowhere, he comes back. He shows up again, alive and well, singing “Rejoice. Rejoice with me. Exult with all your heart. The Lord has taken away the judgments against you. I am in your midst still. I will change your shame into praise. I am here, and I will bring you home.”
By the end of Waits’ album, after 15 tracks of noise and clatter, there comes a final song, track 16 of 16, and it breaks in like a surprise dawn, like a bright morning star.
Well, the moon is broken and the sky is cracked
Come on up to the house
The only things that you can see is all that you lack
Come on up to the house
Doesn’t life seem nasty, brutish and short
The seas are stormy and you can’t find no port
There’s nothing in the world that you can do
And you been whipped by the forces that are inside you
Well, you’re high on top of your mountain of woe
Well, you know you should surrender, but you can’t let it go
You got to Come on up to the houseCome on Up to the House – Waits
Come on up to the house
The world is not my home I’m just a-passing through
You gotta come on up to the house
Track 16, like Zephaniah’s eternal 57th verse, gives us a preacher leading a surprise altar call after all that’s come before.
Sing aloud, O daughter Zion; shout, O Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart!
Hear the good news, Advent people. The Lord has taken away the judgments against you. The Lord, your God, is in your midst. He’s alive, and he’s lighting Advent candles, and singing loud, and making promises. “I will remove disaster from you. I will deal with all your oppressors. I will save the lame. I will gather the outcast. I will change your shame into praise.”
Thus sayeth the Lord:
I am here, and I will bring you home.
Come on up to the house.