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 had 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, 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.