Boston Phoenix, October 30 1979
by Milo Miles
Tom Verlaine's songs may be the slipperiest most hermetic in rock 'n' roll. One can imagine him,
like Brian Wilson, spending his life in a small room, staring out his window and spinning visions:
more emaciated, of course, and looking into far more sordid scenery. Verlaine's landscape is dotted
with crossroads, blank highway signs, and seedy minstrels carrying battered guitars. It's the blues
according to Robert Johnson, according to a rock 'n' roll fan of French symbolism. Tom Verlaine is
the first new-wave blues record, just as Verlaine's sculptured guitar flights made Television the
first and only psychedelic new-wave band. Verlaine is too clever to mimic Robert Johnson's music,
but is self-aware and moody enough to be Johnson's spiritual offspring.|
Tom Verlaine contains such a thicket of overdubbed licks that the instrumentation seems more elaborate than it actually is - mostly Verlaine's guitars, vocals, and keyboards; Fred Smith's bass (from Television); and Jay Dee Daughterty drums (from the Patti Smith Group). Like a traditional blues player, Verlaine uses his guitar to flesh out his narrative, but as a rock 'n' roller, he creates a new protean language. Verlaine tends to speak in tumbling images ("Thirty lights in a row/Every one of them green/How it reminds me/Of your souvenir from a dream"), but he has left the ethereal heights of Television to knock about with some earthly characters and fables; moreover, the opened-up music progressions of the album, Tom Verlaine, make the chunky chord breaks and flurries of bent notes sound less willful. In "The Grip of Love," for example, Verlaine repeatedly carves a characteristically jutting guitar figure that swoops up and snaps the beat each time; for contrast, he throws out point-blank lyrics with a surprisingly smooth and well-phrased vocal: "We tried so many things/To find out how it felt/Now you say 'get lost'/Well don't that blow my belt." Despite the comparisons that have been made, Verlaine's music doesn't unfold like the Grateful Dead's - there's no laid-back rambling, but a sense of suspension as the harsh, economical notes are arranged in cubistic designs. The songs hang in the air like the smell of cordite at the scene of a murder: slightly intriguing, slightly dangerous.
"Yonki Time" is the most outrageous juxtaposition of angles. Over a fragmented, calliope-tinged rhythm, Verlaine strings a series of lyrics ("so nice, to meetcha, isn't it ... guess I'll take the garbage out ... uh, what time did you say it was?") while a droll chorus snorts, coughs, whistles, and shouts, "It's Yonki Time!" The number is less charged than the other cuts with superhero guitar, but it's still insistent - light because sober Verlaine is pulling an out-and-out gag, but also tense because the call-and-response voices suggest a nervous straight surrounded by threatening pinheads. As the song lurches along, it's clear that Verlaine is parodying himself (the impassioned poet reduced to non sequitur small talk) - that it is Verlaine behind the pinhead masks mocking his own sense of control.
Tom Verlaine is indeed a tidy record, as minutely thought-out and worked-over as, say, a Steely Dan album, and, at times, Verlaine's sense of perfection undercuts his desire for adventure. He easily shoves aside Ricky Wilson's second guitar parts on "Breakin' in My Heart." With Television, Verlaine was forced to grapple with the prodigious counterattack of Richard Lloyd, and the result was often an exciting draw. With the album Tom Verlaine, it's only shadowboxing, and another strong player would have put Verlaine back into hard training.
Still there a virtues to Verlaine's current high polish, and you can hear most of them in "Breakin' in My Heart," an update of the guitar-epic style that was born kicking and screaming with "Marquee Moon." Redemption is a persistent theme for Verlaine, and "Breakin' in My Heart" is a choice example of how he chase the blues. The melody deftly bounces up and down for six minutes (too brittle for pop, a bit too smooth for punk) as Verlaine spouts his rough romanticisms until the music fades; he sounds boldly at the helm of his drunken boat. "Breakin' in My Heart" sails out with such conviction that you don't need to penetrate the obsessions to be transformed by listening to Verlaine work them out.