I would follow Tom Waits to the end of the earth. Then, when he would say “Jump”, I’d probably do it.
Swordfishtrombones is the album that took Waits from the gruff voiced crooner to the ravaged, rough style that would be his later records. The genius of it is, the songs got better.
The first Tom Waits song I ever heard was the sloppy waltz “In The Neighborhood”. It was a clip I saw on Much Music (back when they played music). The channel was re-running the British music show The Tube and there was the man himself, vocally tearing through the a lovely sounding ditty that is about one really fucked up neighborhood. It became my favourite for the longest time. Then I actually bought a copy of the album.
Part of Waits’ charm is his brilliant, sardonic lyrics. Take a song like the masterful “16 Shells from a Thirty-Ought-Six”, which Waits sings as if thirty sheets to wind. A drunken tale of destruction, obsession, and clever use of a marimba, the barrels along unrepentant in its inebriated glory, finally collapsing in a mess of vocal tics, weird percussion, and holy roller fury.
There is the genius, beat inspired “Frank’s Wild Years”, a spoken word slice of midlife crisis that involves a wife and a dog named Carlos that cannot be tolerated one second longer. Brief but memorable, hilariously told over some vaguely sixties era sounding organ, it’s a gem of a song.
Other tracks of note include the stark opener “Underground”, with its primal beats; the elegant piano and crooner vocals of “Johnsburg, Illinois”, a song that harkens back to the seventies Waits style; the blues riffs and bourbon encased vocals of “Gin Soaked Boy”; the metal clang , bagpipes, and Aussie landscape of “Town Of No Cheer”. All with rich lyrics, unique music, and that incredible voice.
The voice has always been near mythical. The rough edged baritone matches the tales he tells. Waits is the master chronicler of the pathetic, the sad, the forgotten. He pulls no punches as he wraps his singular voice around his bitterly funny tales of losers. Clearly inspired by both Bing Crosby and Bukowski, with a shitload of Captain Beefheart thrown in just for a lark, Waits is one of the most important artists and one of my personal favourites.
I mean, I could listen to “In The Neighborhood” all day and never get sick of it, it is just that good.