In New Zealand we have a sporting cliche, “a game of two halves”. This certainly applies to Tom Waits’ musical career. For the first ten years of his recording career, he was a singer-songwriter, often on the piano, but with influences of jazz and blues. Waits often wrote about life as a barfly and as the 1970s went on his lyrics and his voice became more soaked in alcohol and cigarettes. His voice became a lugubrious growl, not unlike Louis Armstrong’s.
By 1980 Waits’ career had plateaued, as artistically he hadn’t topped early albums like Closing Time and Small Change. He married Kathleen Brennan, who served as a collaborator and who introduced Waits to outsider music like Captain Beefheart. Waits released Swordfishtrombones in 1983, which employed unusual instruments like marimbas, accordions, and junkyard percussion. This approach ushered in Waits’ most artistically satisfying era and has formed the template for Waits’ subsequent work.
Waits has enjoyed a long and storied career, but his career highlights are generally held to include 1983’s Swordfishtrombones and 1985’s Rain Dogs, and his subsequent albums from the 1980s and 1990s are also excellent. I’ve found Waits’ output since 2000 less engrossing, and he’s released little since 2006’s excellent Orphans set, but he’s built up such an amount of critical kudos that each new release receives rapturous attention.
Waits has also dabbled in acting, and in song it often feels like he’s also projecting a persona. Even though his growled vocals can be affecting, it often feels like a shtick rather than a heartfelt display of emotion. his shtick also covers up what a capable musician he is – while his growling voice and clanging give him a unique angle, he’s also an astute musician. Tom Waits has remained a vibrant creative force longer than most pop musicians, and his lengthy catalogue has plenty of gems.
Tom Waits Album Reviews
Favourite Album: Rain Dogs
Overlooked Gem: Closing Time
Closing Time | The Heart of Saturday Night | Nighthawks at the Diner | Small Change | Foreign Affairs | Blue Valentine | Heartattack and Vine | Swordfishtrombones | Rain Dogs | Franks Wild Years | Bone Machine | The Black Rider | Mule Variations | Blood Money | Alice | Real Gone | Orphans: Brawlers, Bawlers & Bastards | Bad as Me
One of rock music’s great iconoclasts, Tom Waits’ career surprisingly begins with the most straightforward album in his catalogue; a relatively sedate collection of jazzy piano ballads. With his least hoarse vocals ever, and a musical palette limited to conventional instruments, the focus here is on his songwriting and most of these songs are terrific. While Closing Time is largely centred around a jazzy piano style, there are also hints of West Coast rock (the Eagles would later cover the opening track ‘Ol 55’) and country, while ‘Ice Cream Man’ brings an upbeat groove and sassy lyrics. Lyrically, Waits is establishing an image as a lovelorn, alcoholic, late-night bar crooner, and if occasionally the album slips into cliche territory, both musically and lyrically (‘Midnight Lullaby’), it’s melodic and coherent enough that it hangs together as one of Waits’ stronger albums.
Highlights include the pretty acoustic ‘I Hope I Don’t Fall In Love With You’, with its dual guitar picking. In ‘Martha’, the 24-year-old Waits adopts the character of an ageing man looking back at a failed love affair, while ‘Grapefruit Moon’ is gorgeous and languid. ‘Rosie’ is an overlooked highlight, especially its pretty chorus as Waits hits the high note at its conclusion, while ‘Lonely’ is minimalist and quietly devastating. A couple of the songs aren’t too fantastic – as implied above, ‘Midnight Lullaby’ is non-eventful, and not much happens in the closing title instrumental – but most of this record is terrific.
While Closing Time is far from representative of Waits’ career, it’s also one of his most accessible records and it’s a good place to start an exploration into his catalogue; it took him ten years to make a stronger record.
The Heart of Saturday Night
Closing Time was a very accomplished debut from Waits, and The Heart of Saturday Night continues in the same vein. Like the first album, it’s Waits with his least hoarse vocals and his most conventional songs, like a singer-songwriter with a background in jazz and blues, and an interest in seedy nightlife. The Heart of Saturday Night is less diverse than the debut, dwelling almost exclusively in jazzy piano ballads, but the songs aren’t as memorable.
Opener ‘New Coat of Paint’ is certainly a strong entry point to the album, upbeat with Waits’ pretty piano and optimistic lyrics. Waits goes into full singer-songwriter mode with the acoustic guitar on the title track, while on ‘Diamonds on the Windshield’ he’s reading his beat poetry over a walking bass line. ‘Please Call Me Baby’ treads well-worn territory, but it’s pretty enough to work, and ‘Drunk On The Moon’ is another beautiful song.
In some aspects, The Heart of Saturday Night is effectively a lesser sequel to Waits’ debut, but there are enough strong songs to make it a worthwhile effort in its own right. Both of his first two albums capture a pretty, conventional aspect of Waits that he’d never show on record again.
Nighthawks at the Diner
Nighthawks at the Diner is a live album of previously unreleased songs. Because the songs are presented in a live setting, it shows a different perspective on Waits’ shtick; he’s allowed to give opening prologues for the songs, which showcase his skills as a raconteur and stand-up comedian. Waits’ sound is also markedly different from his previous albums – he’s using a jazz combo here, and the songs are often less formed like Waits reciting beatnik poetry over a jazzy backing. The players include respected jazz pianist Michael Melvoin, whose famous children include Wendy Melvoin of Wendy and Lisa.
At seventy minutes, Nighthawks at the Diner can be a tough listen, as it feels more like a vehicle for Waits’ personality and for the jazz musos than a particularly compelling set of songs. My favourite is ‘Better Off Without A Wife’, Waits’ plea for bachelorhood, which has a more memorable melody than most of the other songs. ‘Better Off Without A Wife’ also has the most memorable ‘Intro’, with Waits’ tale of a solo date where he seduces himself.
I’m glad that Waits was given the chance to make Nighthawks at the Diner, which showcases his ability to work the crowd. It’s just not a Waits album that I return to very often.
While Waits is still nominally a piano balladeer on Small Change, but with each album his work was becoming more alcohol-soaked. Songs like ‘I Wish I Was In New Orleans’ and ‘Tom Traubert’s Blues’ are still dominated by Waits’ piano and Louis Armstrong-like gravely voice, but overall Small Change is seedy, right down to the topless woman on the cover, with Waits exploring the dark underbelly of his bar crooner persona, with titles like ‘The Piano Has Been Drinking (Not Me)’ and ‘Bad Liver and a Broken Heart’, as well as the oft-quoted line “I only have a drinking problem/When I can’t get a drink,”; Small Changeencapsulates Waits’ hard-drinking, broken-hearted archetype more than any of his other records.
Small Change opens with the gorgeous ‘Tom Traubert’s Blues’, with its “Waltzing Matilda” chorus, and elliptical lyrics (“You can ask any sailor and the keys from the jailer/And the old men in wheelchairs know”). Waits almost raps an advertising jingle over drums and bass in ‘Step Right Up’: “3 for a dollar/We got a year end clearance”, while on the title track Waits is only accompanied by Lew Tabackin’s saxophone. These are the exceptions rather than the rule, and for fans of Waits’ piano balladry there’s still plenty of conventional material; the melancholic ‘Invitation To The Blues’, and the downtrodden suitor of ‘I Can’t Wait To Get Off Work’.
Small Change is the last record of Waits’ early, piano-based phase – his next few albums would try to diversify his approach with varying amounts of success.
After a solid start to his career, Tom Waits went through a shaky phase in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when he’d seemingly lost direction. Foreign Affairs is a scattershot album; ranging from a Bette Midler duet to a lengthy orchestrated epic, none of which are particularly memorable, and some of which are unusually gimmicky. It was intended to capture the feel of a film noir and does so successfully, but it’s a second-tier batch of songs.
It’s symptomatic that the most memorable song, ‘A Sight For Sore Eyes’, is a straightforward Waits schtick that’s mostly notable for its use of the word palookas. The lengthy ‘Potter’s Field’ is interesting, with its sweeping orchestration, but neither it nor the atmospheric ‘Burma Shave’ feature memorable tunes. The Midler duet, ‘I Never Talk To Strangers’ is a strange deviation for the reliably hip Waits, but it’s arguably the most accomplished piece here, and it’s fun to hear Midler’s mannerisms contrasted with Waits’ growl. Throwaways like ‘Barber Shop’ and the instrumental ‘Cinny’s Waltz’ make Foreign Affairs feel like a clearing house for Waits’ weaker material.
Foreign Affairs is an unusually weak record for a talented artist in their prime years. It’s interesting to hear Waits trying different ideas out, but it’s ultimately unfulfilling.
As much as it suits my narrative to claim that the late 1970s and early 1980s were difficult for Tom Waits, Blue Valentine is a solid album between two of Waits’ weaker efforts. Blue Valentine is Waits’ story-telling album, with tales like ‘Christmas Card From A Hooker In Minneapolis’; even when the arrangements are routine, Waits’ lyrics are often outstanding. Compared to previous albums there’s more lead guitar than previously, and Waits is also using electric piano for the first time.
The album opener doesn’t fit with the rest of the record, but it’s surprisingly effective; a straightforward, sentimental cover of ‘Somewhere’ from West Side Story, where Waits’ raspy vocal contrasts against the schmaltzy strings to beautiful effect. ‘Christmas Card From A Hooker In Minneapolis’ is memorable enough to merit its wonderful title, while ‘Kentucky Avenue’ is beautiful with its piano and strings. I’m less enamoured by the upbeat blues songs, even if they’re fun, but the closing ‘Blue Valentines’ is unique with Waits’ vocal only accompanied by a lead guitar.
Tom Waits’ final albums with Asylum aren’t very convincing, but Blue Valentine is the highlight and worth becoming acquainted with.
Heartattack and Vine
Tom Waits’ final album with Asylum Records is an interesting two-paced record. On one hand the blues material like the title track and ‘Downtown’ isn’t very interesting; Waits’ later blues songs with his junkyard instrument approach are much stronger than his straightforward guitar work on these tracks. But Heartattack and Vine also features beautiful ballads like ‘Ruby’s Arms’ and ‘Jersey Girl’ that are terrific and among his best-loved work.
Of the bluesy songs I do enjoy ‘Downtown’, where the sound is fleshed out with an organ, while the lyrics of the title track are also memorable. But the meat of Heartattack and Vine is in the ballads; ‘Jersey Girl’ was famously covered by Bruce Springsteen on his live set. ‘On A Nickel’ is gorgeous with Waits singing smoothly in a low register, backed by sparse piano and strings. And ‘Ruby’s Arms’ is another pretty tune, with a neat, unexpected chord sequence.
Heartattack and Vine doesn’t flow very well as an album, and the generic blues songs leave the dominating impression, but it’s well worth cherry-picking the highlights from it.
Tom Waits went through a major career shift between 1980’s Heartattack and Vine and 1983’s Swordfishtrombones. He left Asylum Records for Island, and he married Kathleen Brennan, a script analyst. Brennan had adventurous music tastes and introduced Waits to outsider music like Captain Beefheart. This informed Waits’ approach, and he transitioned from conventional piano and guitar arrangements to utilising unusual textures like the harmonium, glass harmonica, bagpipes, and marimba, sometimes reminiscent of American composer and instrument maker Harry Partch. The tapestry of junkyard sounds would continue throughout the rest of his career, and Swordfishtrombones is the pivotal record of Waits’ discography.
It’s also noticeable that Swordfishtrombones is structured differently than Waits’ previous albums, which generally held nine or ten songs. Swordfishtrombones features fifteen, some of which are fragmentary; ‘Johnsburg, Illionois’, a tribute to Waits’ new wife, is a conventional piano ballad that would have fitted onto his previous albums, but it’s a mere ninety seconds of beauty, while instrumentals like ‘Just Another Sucker on the Vine’ showcase Waits’ new sonic inspirations. The diversity is also increased by the monologues of ‘Shore Leave’ and ‘Frank’s Wild Years’. While his forays into blues rock on Heartattack and Vine were perfunctory, with the more interesting sound palette of Swordfishtrombones, rough-hewn songs like ‘Gin Soaked Boy’ are much more engaging.
The Tom Waits of Swordfishtrombones is like a kid in a candy store, who’s just discovered a new, wondrous cacophony of sounds, and who’s utilised them to create a wonderful, memorable album.
Swordfishtrombones was a terrific album, but Waits tops it, seemingly effortlessly, with its sequel Rain Dogs. Rain Dogs inhabits the same Captain Beefheart-inspired musical space, with unusual instrumentation like marimbas and accordions, although there’s a more extensive cast of backing musicians, notably with Marc Ribot and Keith Richards contributing as guitarists. Lyrically Rain Dogsconstructs a unique world of social outcasts; “the captain is a one-armed dwarf” is the second line of the album.”
There’s an embarrassment of riches among the nineteen tracks of Rain Dogs; there are simple acoustic-based pieces like ‘Time’, ‘Hang Down Your Head’, and ‘Downtown Train’, which would have fit onto Waits’ 1970s albums, and the latter of which became a hit for Rod Stewart. There are demented singalongs like ‘Singapore’ and the title track, and rough blues rockers like ‘Big Black Mariah’, and Rain Dogs is essentially a nineteen-song album with no weak tracks.
Rain Dogs is the crowning achievement of Waits’ discography and one of the finest albums of the 1980s.
Frank’s Wild Years
Frank’s Wild Years is a soundtrack to a play that Tom Waits wrote with his wife Kathleen Brennan, based on the song of the same name from Swordfishtrombones. It doesn’t come across as a typical soundtrack, as it’s essentially a group of fully-fledged songs, even if a couple are repeated in different iterations. It’s often regarded as part of a trilogy, along with Swordfishtrombones and Rain Dogs, but I don’t especially see the connection. Frank’s Wild Years has fewer rough edges than its predecessors, even if it does use similar textures like accordions, and Waits’ voice often has a processed feel that’s different from his usual lugubrious growl. With the smoother feel, I find Frank’s Wild Years less appealing than Waits’ previous Island records, even if it’s another excellent batch of songs.
The most striking track on Frank’s Wild Years is Waits’ Sinatra impression on ‘Straight To The Top (Vegas)’, while ‘Telephone Call From Istanbul’ sets Waits’ rough vocal against Middle Eastern textures. ‘Hang on St. Christopher’ is an effective opener with its twangy guitar, ‘Way Down In The Hole’ is a memorable piece of gospel, and ‘Innocent When You Dream’ is a pretty, heartfelt closer.
There’s a lot of great material on Frank’s Wild Years, I just don’t find the subdued feel as enticing as Tom Waits’ two previous records.
Like Frank’s Wild Years, Bone Machine offers a different spin on the sound that Waits had developed on Swordfishtrombones. This time, the arrangements are very simple; most of these songs only have two or three instrumental tracks on them, often a guitar, a bass, and rough percussion. The simple sound lends itself both to propulsive rockers like ‘Goin’ Out West’ and tearjerkers like ‘Whistle Down The Road’, and Bone Machine is another very solid entry into Waits’ strong catalogue of the 1980s and 1990s.
‘I Don’t Wanna Grow Up’ was later covered by The Ramones, and its carried by Waits’ loud, primitive guitar. ‘Goin’ Out West’ is another primitive blues rocker, that’s thrilling when the rhythm section hits, while other rockers like ‘In The Colosseum’ and ‘Such A Scream’ are stripped back to their bare essences, almost ten years before The White Stripes used the same approach. The context of being surrounded by nasty rockers makes the pretty piano ballads sound even prettier, and songs like ‘A Little Rain’ and ‘Whistle Down The Wind’ jump out among the garage rock.
Twenty years into his recording career, Waits was on a roll, and Bone Machine is a very strong entry in a stellar discography.
While Tom Waits had a great run of albums from Swordfishtrombones until the end of the 20th century, Mule Variations is a clear highlight; it’s more fun and diverse than the subdued Frank’s Wild Years and the serious Bone Machine. Mule Variations is just about the quintessential Tom Waits album, with piano ballads, blues stompers, and more experimental pieces.
But Mule Variations doesn’t simply cover all of Tom Waits’ bases; it does it with aplomb. There are strong tunes in each area of his oeuvre. ‘Filipino Box Spring Hog’ and ‘Big in Japan’ are rollicking blues stompers. ‘What’s He Building In There’ is a memorable spoken word piece, with Waits’ voice mysterious and chilling. There are pretty piano ballads like ‘Georgia Lee’ and ‘Take It With Me’. Mule Variations ends triumphantly with ‘Come On Up To The House’, a grand, wheezing statement of inclusiveness and solidarity.
Almost thirty years into Waits’ career, Mule Variations is a contender for his best album – a stunning effort in what’s usually a young person’s game.
Released on the same day as Alice, Blood Money is also a soundtrack. It was written for the musical Woyzeck, based on the Georg Büchner play of the same name. The play is apparently a dark series of tragedies, and the soundtrack is also nihilistic – it presents the darker side of Waits’ oeuvre with few ballads and lots of noisy oom pah pahs.
As with Alice, I largely find Waits’ discography a struggle in the 2000s; Blood Money is impressively vital music from a man in his fifties, but at the same time it doesn’t break any new ground, and Waits’ vocals have become rougher with time. Additionally, Blood Money is one of the darker albums in Waits’ catalogue. It’s not all gloom – ‘Lullaby’ is typically tender for a Waits’ ballad – but the most memorable material is the abrasive songs like ‘Starving In The Belly Of A Whale’, ‘Misery Is The River of the World’, and ‘God’s Away On Business’.
I admire Blood Money, and it’s a solid release, but make sure you hear the stronger albums from the 1980s and 1990s first.
Tom Waits released two albums on the same day in 2002, both soundtracks for plays. Alice was written in the early 1990s, for a play about Lewis Carroll, but wasn’t recorded until ten years later.
Tom Waits’ 21st-century output is a step down from his wonderful work in the 1980s and 1990s. After a wonderfully vital second career of fairground music and oompah pahs, his albums start to sound tired. It doesn’t help that his voice has become more worn and gruff. But they’re still worthwhile – in his fifties, Waits continued to make strong music. Of the two albums Waits released on 7 May 2002, Alice is the more subdued, with lots of wistful, tender tracks.
It’s the wistful title track that’s the highlight of Alice for me; it’s gentle and evocative (“And the skates on the pond/They spell Alice”). If you’re a fan of Waits’ balladry, there’s plenty to love, like the odd romantic pairing of ‘Fish And Bird’ and the delicacy of ‘Flowers Grave’. Most of Alice is gentle fare, but there is one track of spluttering vocals and wild percussion in ‘Kommienezuspadt’.
Alice is another strong release from Tom Waits – even though I feel like I have enough of Waits’ albums in my life when I get to this point in his discography, he kept making worthwhile music.
Real Gone is another Tom Waits’ album from the 2000s that I’m not very excited about – but this time the issue is that it’s simply too long. While it superficially all sounds like dirty blues, with lots of guitar and few keyboards, it successfully integrates new musical elements for Waits like beat-boxing and loops. In many aspects, it’s like a sequel to 1992’s similarly raw and bluesy Bone Machine. Real Gone is often very good, but at 72 minutes it outstays its welcome.
There are punchy, concise, bluesy rockers, like ‘Hoist That Rag’ and ‘Make It Rain’ that stand proudly in Waits’ catalogue. ‘Sins of the Father’ is an eerie blues piece, but at ten minutes, like the album as a whole, it outstays its welcome. There’s plenty of dark material, like ‘Baby Gonna Leave Me’ and ‘Don’t Go Into The Barn’, and little contrasting levity.
There’s good material, but 72 minutes of bluesy Waits, with little stylistic variation, makes Real Gone tough to sit through.
Orphans: Brawlers, Bawlers & Bastards
I’ve often felt nonplussed by Tom Waits’ output in the 21st century. While it maintains his high standards and has enjoyed critical acclaim, it hasn’t often felt like it’s broken new ground and it’s often been terse and unrelentingly dark. But the one exception is this triple set of Waits’ out-takes and new songs. Its three discs are organised thematically, into brawlers, bawlers, and bastards – respectively covering his bluesy rockers, his ballads, and his more experimental pieces.
Orphans‘ fifty-six songs include thirty new songs recorded specifically for the project, and it’s a treat to have so much worthy Waits material in one place. There are tons of highlights, but among many standout tracks there’s the deathbed balladry of ‘Never Let Go’, the spoken tale of ‘Missing My Son’, and the spluttering cover of Leadbelly’s ‘Goodnight Irene’.
Orphans is the one Waits album from the 21st century that is all but indispensable to fans.
Bad As Me
Waits spent the previous decade making albums with a clear focus – the abrasive rock of Real Gone, the balladry of Alice, and the three thematic discs of Orphans. Bad As Me brings back the eclecticism, and it feels like the sequel to Mule Variations. The tracks are concise, and show the breadth of Waits’ work – from brash, stomping humour to tear-jerking ballads. Kathleen Brennan co-produces, and the record features an array of Waits stalwarts like Marc Ribot, David Hidalgo, and Keith Richards.
There’s strong upbeat and mellow material on Bad As Me. On the upbeat side, Waits displays his humour on the title track; “You’re Mother Superior with only a bra/You’re the same kind of bad as me.” ‘Hell Broke Luce’ is the kind of bluesy stomper that would have fit on Real Gone, but it’s more instantly memorable than anything on that disc. The gravel in Waits’ voice allows him to pull off the sentimental ballad with ‘Kiss Me’, and ‘New Year’s Eve’ provides a suitably stirring conclusion.
It’s not as melodically memorable as peak Waits, but Bad As Me is Waits’ best album of new material since Mule Variations, a fast-moving trawl through his stylistic range.
Ten Favourite Tom Waits Songs
I Hope I Don’t Fall In Love With You
Whistle Down The Wind
Tom Traubert’s Blues
Come On Up To The House
Goin’ Out West
Never Let Go
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