Tom Waits, Swordfishtrombones

Sam Adams

By Sam Adams

on 10.24.11 in Reviews


Tom Waits
One of the most startling and successful reinventions in the history of music

It’s hard to imagine how fans accustomed to the boozy romanticism of Waits’s Island years might have reacted to the opening clangor of Swordfishtrombones‘ “Underground,” but one imagines a freshly clobbered Wile E. Coyote with birds circling his head. Chalk it up to his recent marriage to Kathleen Brennan, whose record collection was as rich in Captain Beefheart as Waits’s was in Mose Allison, or a long-simmering restlessness, but it remains one of the most startling and successful reinventions in the history of music. The sheer breadth of the album’s inspirations is staggering; in a contemporary interview, Waits cited Charles Bukowski, Howlin’ Wolf, Nino Rota, Cuban nightclub music, the Salvation Army, Dr. Zhivago, the film noir Nightmare Alley and a kind of “Oriental Bobby ‘Blue’ Bland approach.” Rhythm has supplanted harmony as the primary structuring element, from the lurching, industrial beat of “16 Shells From a Thirty-Ought-Six” to the marimba pulse of “Swordfishtrombone.” The lyrics run to open surrealism, leaving the nightclubs and dive bars behind for a world of his own invention. With its lulling horn fanfare, “In the Neighborhood” goes a way towards bridging the distance from Heartattack and Vine, but the song won’t stay put; the neighborhood is only a state of mind. A trio of instrumentals (“Dave the Butcher,” “Just Another Sucker on the Vine,” “Rainbirds”) underline the preference for mood over melody: “Dave” is a dissonant organ dirge, while “Sucker” sounds like the score to some lost Charlie Chaplin short. Waits burned his oeuvre to the ground; he could have been left with only ashes, but instead he found unspoiled earth that was his and his alone.