There aren’t many artists better than the brilliant Tom Waits at giving us bourbon-soaked jazz and blues ballads that tingle with emotion and musicianship that always feels carefree but is never anything less than excellent. This, when mixed with Waits’ lyrical talents that he uses to paint wonderful pictures of the dark side of American culture, from alcoholism through to crime and prostitution, make his work some of the best in his genre. Of course, Waits wasn’t one to be constrained by a particular style and has with the release of every record, of which there are now sixteen studio albums, three live albums and seven compilations, blended more and more genres together to create the unique blend that spawned albums like ‘Real Gone’ and 2011’s ‘Bad As Me’, but here we’re going to take a look at a time where his voice had gained that rough, growly quality he’s so famous for after years of smoking and drinking, and which Waits uses to create his own brand of powerful and enveloping jazz delivered with the gusto of Louis Armstrong.
From an era where strings were still a major part of his music, album opener ‘Tom Traubert’s Blues (Four Sheets to the Wind in Copenhagen)’ is a sorrowful tale about a penniless drunk in a foreign land and those strings set the tone from the very start. Blending in the chorus of Australian folk song ‘Waltzing Matilda’, it showcases Waits’ ability as a pianist and sets the theme for an album that comes from the heart, and where dud notes and missed beats mean nothing in relation to the whole scope and feel of the songs on the record. It’s a hard-hitting song and arguably the best on the album, Waits’ delivery quavering and wobbling much like a drunkard on his last legs.
Although the opener serves well as a marker for the rest of the album, Waits’ sorrowful, slurred delivery being a staple of most songs, second track ‘Step Right Up’ is almost entirely different. A sarcastic and delightfully humorous song about consumerism, Waits’ lyrical talent really comes out here as he pretends to be a variety of consumerist staples, from over-ambitious adverts (“change your shorts/change your life/ change in to a nine year old Hindu boy/get rid of your wife” being a particular highlight) to oily, sly salesmen, it’s a song full of gems that moves along briskly to a twanging guitar and never lets up on the humour. Ironically, a jingle very similar to Waits’ song was used by Frito-Lay, a potato chip company that Waits sued for using a song he himself called “an indictment of advertising” which sums up just what he was trying to get at. We return to the album’s theme of heavy drinking and its association with being a lowlife with the third track ‘Jitterbug Boy’, his slurred delivery being a particular feature. It’s a relaxed and elegantly played ballad that packs all of Waits’ usual charisma and whose lyrics paint a picture of a beat-up bar where a drunk man has decided to tell the whole bar his life story, packed with lots of exaggerations and all the drunken self-aggrandizement that you’d expect.
A similar black humour is evident in the rest of the songs, a particular highlight being fifth track ‘The Piano Has Been Drinking (Not Me)’ where Waits grumbles that he’s not drunk, and goes on to lament about the weird things objects are doing around him, as defiantly as someone would when they’re stone cold hammered, to the tune of some more wonderfully melodic and assured piano work that feels like it could be improvised and yet encapsulates the feeling of the song so perfectly it surely can’t be.
While I’ve talked about those four songs in detail, it’s not as if the others are not worthy of ample praise. Indeed, from the elegant ‘Invitation to the Blues’ where Waits tells another beautiful story about a doomed romance that packs all the usual punches, to the jaunty ‘Pasties and a G-String’ all the way through to album closer, the reluctantly optimistic ‘I Can’t Wait to Get off Work’ it’s Waits at his musical and lyrical best. It may be the case that this era of Waits’ music, where he adheres to the style and rhythm of jazz pretty stringently and was putting out a record every year, is not your thing and you prefer the experimental work he’s come out with in the most recent section of his career, there’s no denying this is a brilliant jazz record that’ll linger through the ages.