At the time of its release I considered this album to be a revelation. Unusual instrumentation and vocals. It was soon apparent that it had to have been a revelation to Waits himself also, to realize that he was able to create music in this fashion. It deviated hugely from his work preceding this album.
Leading up to Swordfishtrombones
Tom Waits released his debut album Closing Time in 1973. One year earlier David Geffen saw him play at the famous Troubadour in Los Angeles and was impressed. He was classified as a singer-songwriter, which was a popular term at the time and ensured good sales. Up to 1980 five more albums were released, which were all in the same vein as the debut. Jazzy nightclub like music, that had a small, but fanatic following. Both Waits and his music became increasingly futile to the general public.
Nonetheless, Waits did make some beautiful songs, many of which were covered by others, oftentimes better. For instance, listen to the moving Jersey Girl as portrayed by Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band on the boxset Live / 1975-85.
Early 1980’s Waits had started working as a musicwriter for Francis Ford Coppola’s movie One From The Heart. It would be the start of a long lasting working relationship between the two, which would also result in Waits playing (small) roles in a number of Coppola’s movies.
In August of 1980 Waits married Kathleen Brennan. A major event in Waits’ life, which would prove to be essential for his musical career. Brennan encouraged Waits to write and release music he really wanted to make. Waits once said that he, prior to meeting Brennan, made records like “I’d nailed one foot to the floor and kept going in circles, making the same record”. Brennan enlarged Waits’ musical knowledge and introduced him to Captain Beefheart, among others. Beefheart’s musical instincts, and his uncompromising will to act on them, inspired Waits greatly.
Between 1980 and 1983 Waits severed his ties with his manager, his producer and his record company.
Swordfishtrombones is Tom Waits’ seventh studio album, which was released in September of 1983. The album had been finished in 1982, but it took several months before Waits had found a record company that dared to release it. The album represents a 180 degree turn compared to his first six albums. Gone was the sultry, romantic instrumentation. In came the unusual instruments, another way of writing and a new producer: Waits himself.
The music is rather minimalist, wherein quite a large number of instruments are deployed which are usually not a part of (pop)music, let alone Wait’s previous works, like marimba’s, a bagpipe, a tuba, a chair (!), a dabuka, steel plates and pumporgans. Waits’ voice sounds hoarse and at times off key.
The album hit like an earthquake. Most of the reviews were written well after the initial release date. A clear indication that Waits was no longer regarded as an interesting artist. The album ensured that Waits was the subject of lots of articles. And, more importantly, in a positive way. Many called the album one of the best of 1983.
Tom Waits’ new album is so weird that Asylum Records decided not to release it, but it’s so good that Island was smart enough to pick it up. Half of the fifteen cuts — the dirty blues, poetry recitals and odd instrumentals — would not sound out of place on a Captain Beefheart album. The rest of the record consists of gorgeous Waitsian melodies, which haven’t been collected in such quantity since his ten-year-old debut album.
It’s easy to forget that Tom Waits is one of the great American pop songwriters. His voice is so ravaged that his albums have often been cluttered and overproduced in order to compensate. On the self-produced Swordfishtrombones, Waits wisely sticks to spare accompaniment, which allows his rough-hewn voice to achieve a real tenderness. As for the songs, many of them feature men who are caught up, broken down or separated from loved ones by war. In “Soldier’s Things”, the saddest song on the album and Waits’ most stunning composition in years, a mother is having a yard sale: “A tinker, a tailor/A soldier’s things/His rifle, his boots full of rocks/And this one is for bravery, and this one is for me/Everything’s a dollar in this box”.
Of course, it wouldn’t be a Tom Waits album without the rhymes (“He got twenty years for lovin’ her/From some Oklahoma governor”) and deadbeat humor. “Frank’s Wild Years” contains a hilarious monologue about a guy cutting out on his wife, “a spent piece of used jet trash [with] a little Chihuahua named Carlos/That had some kind of skin disease/And was totally blind”. The combination of weirdness, heartfelt lyrics and haunting instrumentals adds up to a superior LP and an opportunity to rediscover Tom Waits.
© Rolling Stone, 24-11-1983
The album and its subjects were mysterious, dark and, at times, scary. The opening song immediately sets the mood:
There’s a world going on underground
They’re alive, they’re awake
While the rest of the world is asleep
© Tom Waits 1983
It has always bewildered me that the song In The Neighborhood is written by Tom Waits and had its first release as late as 1983. It sounds like an evergreen, like a remnant of ancient times.
At the time I was heavily impressed when I heard Swordfishtrombones. Mainly because it didn’t sound like anything else that was fashionable at the time. A brave album. Especially coming from Tom Waits, because all hope for an interesting career had vanished. Waits sounded like he was reborn, and really didn’t sound like Waits at all.
The album was highly influential to Waits’ career from then on. Did the album have any impact outside of Waits’ career confines? No, not really. The album is unique and wasn’t copied by others.
All songs written by Tom Waits.
- Shore Leave
- Dave the Butcher
- Johnsburg, Illinois
- 16 Shells From A Thirty-Ought-Six
- Town With No Cheer
- In The Neighborhood
- Just Another Sucker On The Vine
- Frank’s Wild Years
- Down, Down, Down
- Soldier’s Things
- Gin Soaked Boy
- Trouble’s Braids
In 1985 Waits released the album Rain Dogs, which was also heralded by the (international) press, in 1987 followed by Franks Wild Years. Combined with Swordfishtrombones the albums make up some kind of trilogy, because the fictional character Frank O’Brien appears on all three albums.
What do you think about Tom Waits and the great change of which Swordfishtrombones was the first result? Let me know!
Tom Waits – Live 1983 image: artology-gallery.com
Tom Waits & Kathleen Brennan 1984 image: reddit.com
Tom Waits – Swordfishtrombones image: newburycomics.com
Tom Waits – Circa 1983 image: jazzinphoto.wordpress.com
Tom Waits – Rain Dogs & Franks Wild Years image: discogs.com/apoplife.nl
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