One of rock music’s greatest iconoclasts, Tom Waits’ career begins with what’s arguably 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 song writing 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 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 the gorgeous and languid. ‘Rosie’ is an overlooked highlight, especially its pretty chorus as Waits hits the high note at the 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 not a bad place to start an exploration into his catalogue; it took him ten years to make a stronger record.