Discography Digest: Tom Waits
[This is part of a series — including David Bowie, Pearl Jam, Leonard Cohen, Queen and Beastie Boys — in which I listen to an artist’s entire discography of studio albums in chronological order over the course of a week.]
When artists that I like talk about artists that they like, I try to pay attention. This is why I started listening to Nick Drake, Big Star and Leonard Cohen. It’s also why I started listening to Tom Waits toward the end of my freshman year of college. He’d been name-checked by enough great songwriters that I knew that I should dive in.
Like many people, I couldn’t get past the voice at first. He sounded like a drunken grizzly bear who’d been gargling a broken beer bottle. Then after a few songs — one of them was probably “Hold On”, arguably the most accessible song in his catalog — I got it, and I became absolutely obsessed for the next few years.
Tom Waits is a polarizing artist. To some people, he’s one of the greatest songwriters of the last half century. A true poet and storyteller of the rock and roll era. An ageless artist who has endured without diminishing for four decades. One of modern music’s most unique, most thunderous characters.
Or he’s a pretentious, overrated phony with a fedora and soul patch who imitates bad jazz music for white people who don’t actually like jazz music.
Although I know a lot of fellow Tom Waits fans, I know even more who “want” to like Tom Waits. He’s not a guy with traditional hits, so knowing where to dive in can be a challenge. Hopefully this will give you enough of a framework to get started. (I also have a Spotify playlist that might help.)
To date, the Tom Waits catalog includes 17 studio albums, 1 live/studio-hybrid album, and one triple album that will be explained later — all ranging from 1973 to 2011. It took me 7 days to listen to in its entirety.
And away we go …
Closing Time (1973) — He opens his career with Closing Time, a boozy, bluesy collection of bittersweet love songs. To describe Tom Waits debut as sweet, breezy or accessible is true only in relation to the rest of his catalog. He doesn’t have the deep, gravely grizzly bear voice that he’d become famous for. He refers to himself as an “old tomcat” in multiple songs, which is all you need to know about the Waits’ early persona.
Favorite Song: “Martha”
The Heart of Saturday Night (1974) — The year after his debut, Waits followed with a more energetic companion album. This record uses more speak-singing and straight spoken-word tunes. I had always prefered this to Closing Time, but on this listen I find it to be the weaker of the first two.
Nighthawks at the Diner (1975) — Simultaneously a live album and a studio album, “Nighthawks at the Diner” was recorded live in front of a small audience at LA’s Record Plant Studios. All of these early albums sound like should be played during last call at a smoky white jazz club, and the live atmosphere of Nighthawks at the Diner serves that sound really well. These are more sprawling portraits and stories than traditional songs. Tom Waits is a very funny artist, and it comes through for the first time here. Also, it’s 74 minutes long, so pack a lunch. His voice is getting a bit gruffer.
Favorite Song: “Eggs and Sausage (In a Cadillac with Susan Michelson)”
Small Change (1976) — The TOM WAITS VOICE™ makes its first full-blown appearance. His darkest album yet, Small Change is a tribute to sad drunkenness — a lingering hangover. It’s top to tails with gorgeous, bittersweet songs and continues to build on everything that Waits has been doing up to this point.
Favorite Song: “Tom Traubert’s Blues (Four Sheets to the Wind in Copenhagen)”
Foreign Affairs (1977) — I was less familiar with this album than I thought I was. It’s his first step backward — almost like someone trying to make a Tom Waitsian album. There are still some very lovely songs, but it’s a bit of a letdown.
Favorite Song: “Burma-Shave”
Blue Valentine (1978) — For the last few albums, he’s not really been pushing himself anywhere new, but he’s carved out a unique sound and style. Blue Valentine continues this in a better way than Foreign Affairs did. He loves writing sweet songs about the life’s small pleasures, and he loves writing about sad, desperate characters. These come together on “Christmas Card from a Hooker in Minneapolis”, a seemingly optimistic song with a depressing twist.
Favorite Song: “Christmas Card from a Hooker in Minneapolis”
Heartattack and Vine (1980) — Mostly more of the same. It’s less of a smokey jazz album than his prior ones. The hallmark song is “Jersey Girl”, but I’d argue that it isn’t its best.
Favorite Song: “Mr. Siegal”
One for the Heart (1982) — With all due respect to Crystal Gayle, no thanks. The soundtrack to the Francis Ford Coppola film of the same name, One for the Heart is generally a lighter album with less of Waits’ signature twisted storytelling, and it splits the lead vocals between Waits and country singer Crystal Gayle. The most significant thing about this album is that he met his future wife and songwriting partner, Kathleen Brennan, while working on this film.
Favorite Song: “Broken Bicycles”
Swordfishtrombones (1983) — From the very first notes, it’s clear that this is a new era. Gone is the piano-based, jazz-fueled troubadour. What replaces it is a devilish, growling, noisy, thumping collection of tunes built around guitars, horns, organs, harmoniums, marimbas, and whatever the hell else he could find . After several strong but repetitive albums, this is a complete about-face. What remains is Tom Waits’ sorrowful, humorous, beautiful songwriting and storytelling. This is the first album that Waits produced himself, and the first since Closing Time not produced by Bones Howe. Whether it’s the chicken or the egg, the change in producer is also important to the massive change on this album.
Favorite Song: “In the Neighborhood”
Rain Dogs (1985) — Dang, this album is great. It’s an evolution of what he was doing on Swordfishtrombones, but it’s much stronger. It has a whopping 19 songs of varying shapes, sizes and colors, and all of them work. “Clap Hands, “Tango Till They’re Sore”, “Hang Down Your Head”, “Time”, “Gun Street Girl”, “Downtown Train”, “Anywhere I Lay My Head” are all perfect. Considering how far from this is from his long-running jazz crooner sound of the ’70s, it’s a fully realized musical identity. There’s some stuff on here — “Singapore”, “9th and Hennepin” — that some people probably hate.
Favorite Song: “Hang Down Your Head”
Frank’s Wild Years (1987) — Tom Wait wrote a musical called Frank’s Wild Years based on a spoken-word song from Swordfishtrombones. This the soundtrack. If Swordfishtrombones was a preamble to Rain Dogs, this is the B-sides collection. It’s pretty inconsistent. High highs and low lows.
Favorite Song: “Train Song”
Bone Machine (1992) — I’d never cared for this album, but it’s much better than I’d remembered. My recollection was that Bone Machine leaned too heavily in the hellish, circus conductor, noise-rock direction, but there are lots of great songs here. This is also the first album that he co-wrote entirely with his wife and musical partner, Kathleen Brennan.
The Black Rider (1993) — Remember what I just said that I thought that Bone Machine was (“leaned too heavily in the hellish, circus conductor, noise-rock direction”)? Yeah, that’s actually The Black Rider. It’s strange and dark enough that I appreciate but don’t actually like very much. Like Frank’s Wild Years, it was written for a play that Waits wrote.
Favorite Song: “Just the Right Bullets”
Mule Variations (1999) — After a six-year break, he returned with an older, more sorrowful sound. This was always one of my favorite Tom Waits albums, and guess what: I’m right. After the excessive harshness of The Black Rider, this album combines the sinister (“Big in Japan”) with a sweetness (“Picture in a Frame”) that hasn’t been since from Tom Waits in a long time.
Favorite Song: “Come on Up to the House”
Alice (2002) — Tom Waits released two albums, Alice and Blood Money, on the exact same day. Like several of Waits’ albums, both are comprised primarily of songs from written for plays. They’re also the first Tom Waits albums to be released after I became a fan. This is my favorite of the two. Although it’s similar to Mule Variation, it’s a sadder and quieter, which is really saying something. It’s not as noisy as his other post-Swordfishtrombones album. Instead, the songwriting and production are both more straightforward and understated. Its title track is one of my very favorite Tom Waits songs.
Favorite Song: “Alice”
Blood Money (2002) — The other album released on May 2, 2002. With songs like “Misery Is the River of the World”, “God’s Away on Business” and “Everything Goes to Hell”, it’s clear that this aligns more with the Black Rider-esque playful villainry. It’s not great, but it’s better than I’d remembered.
Favorite Song: “Starving in the Belly of the Whale”
Real Gone (2004) — Released a year after the US invaded Iraq, Real Gone contains some of the few directly political material of Waits’ career. It also completely eliminates all keyboards but adds things like turntables.
Favorite Song: “The Day After Tomorrow”, a devastating song told from the perspective of an American soldier
Orphans: Brawlers, Bawlers and Bastards (2006) — This isn’t really considered part of his official discography, but it’s important to mention. Orphans is a triple album — more than three hours of music! — containing 24 rare songs and 30 new songs. The songs are categorized thematically on each disc: “Brawlers” are more rock-oriented; “Bawlers” are melancholy ballads; “Bastards” are more experimental or don’t fit elsewhere. As you’d expect with anything containing 54 songs, it’s hit or miss, but there is a whole lot of absolutely fantastic stuff here. Tom Waits covering the Ramones (twice!) is worth the price of admission.
Favorite Song: “Down There By The Train”
Bad As Me (2011) — Tom Waits released his most recent album two months before turning 62, and he refuses to mellow. Bad As Me has much bite as anything that Waits has made. His shortest album since The Heart of Saturday Night, this is one of his most consistent and filler-free. Listening in this context, “Kiss Me” is a wonderful throwback to the early jazz troubadour incarnation of Tom Waits.
Favorite Song: “Talking at the Same Time”
- Most Essential: Rain Dogs
- Least Essential: One for the Heart
- Overlooked Gem (Album): Bone Machine
- Overlooked Gems (Songs): “I Can’t Wait to Get Off Work (And See My Baby on Montgomery Avenue)”, “Mr. Siegal”, “Town With No Cheer”, “Dirt in the Ground”
- Best Moment: Toward the end of “I Don’t Wanna Grow Up” (Bone Machine), “I don’t wanna live in a big ol’ tomb on Grant Street / HOO!”
- Yeah, sure, great. But just tell me where to get started already! I’m not sure that there is single album that’s the universal entry point. If you want to dive in, here are a few songs to try: “Hold On” (Mule Variations), “Please Call Me, Baby” (The Heart of Saturday Night), “Jersey Girl” (Blue Valentines), “Downtown Train” (Rain Dogs), “Big in Japan” (Mule Variations)
- Similar to Alice Cooper, Marilyn Manson and KISS, I think that Tom Waits is largely a public persona. He’s playing a character. This becomes really clear in any TV interview with him. I’m curious to know who the real Tom Waits is. I know people who hate Tom Waits because they find him to be really pretentious, but that’s part of the point. Even his most serious, earnest songs don’t seem to actually be about himself.
- Along those lines, Tom Waits is a really entertaining actor. His IMDB page lists 34 acting credits — usually playing oddballs and weirdos. This supports my theory that the Tom Waits we see and here is largely a fictional character.
- A comma changed the way that I hear one of my favorite Tom Waits songs. I’d also heard, “Please Call Me, Baby” without the comma in the title — making it a plea a plea for a woman’s affections (see: The Ronettes’ “Be My Baby”). The comma makes it a more literal plea for her to pick up the phone and give him a call, baby (see: Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Call Me Maybe”).
- I skipped his (mostly) instrumental soundtrack to Night at Earth. I don’t really consider this to be an official album.
- Kathleen Brennan. Tom Waits was already an accomplished and celebrated songwriter before meeting her, and I therefore I’d always dismissed her songwriting contributions. However, during this listening experience, I see how pivotal she was. There was a massive change in Waits’ style and songwriting beginning with Swordfishtrombones, which is the first album that he made after meeting her. She allegedly pushed him to a more experimental sound and unusual instruments. I was clearly underestimating her importance to the music of Tom Waits.
A few of the greatest Tom Waits lyrics:
- The large print giveth, and the small print taketh away. (“Step Right Up”)
- I’m getting harder than Chinese algebra. (“Pasties And A G-String”)
- You’ve got to get behind the mule in the morning and plow. (“Get Behind the Mule” — I’ve been known to misquote this in casual conversation.)
- Come down off the cross / We could use the wood (“Come On Up to the House”)