Bad As Me - The Music of Tom Waits
I once asked some friends what artist they associated most with me, be it a summary of my taste in music or just what comes to mind when they think of me, and the conclusion they came to was Tom Waits. For those of you who have never listened to him, his work is a little difficult to explain. I can best describe a large swath of his discography (though he went through many phases) as somewhere in the vicinity of a drunken pirate singing tales of woe about life as a mid-70s New York City street bum. And that's hardly an exaggeration. One of the best known quotes about Mr. Waits, by critic Daniel Durchholz describes his voice as "sounding like it was soaked in a vat of bourbon, left hanging in the smokehouse for a few months, and then taken outside and run over with a car.” I've loved Tom Waits' work for a long time, as he was one of the earliest experimental artists I got into when I really fell head over heels in love with music. He along with a few other artists from the same era who also partook in a lot of experimentation (such as David Bowie, Nick Cave, Kate Bush, and more) formed the foundation of my music interests. If you want to really experience him for yourself, I recommend starting with a couple key albums depending on your taste, or simply listening to the This Is Tom Waits playlist on Spotify, which gives a pretty good career summary. I divide Tom's career into three segments; his early years, his "Wild Years", and his experimental years. You'll see why the middle era is in quotation marks shortly.
First off, his early years.
Tom started out as a jazz and folk singer, playing scrappy, downtrodden clubs across the west coast of the United States while working as a songwriter before getting a deal with Asylum. His early work is classic late into the night bar fare. It's got all the hallmarks of the beaten down piano man, like the one featured in the Billy Joel song of the same name. Ballads of lost love, working a job you don't like, and finding solace in the bottom of the glass.
A couple key albums from this era would be Small Change, a great look into his early sound which also begins to touch on his affinity for unique song structures and wild instrumentation, as well as Heartattack And Vine, which is the final album of this era and marks the transitionary period into his following trilogy of albums.
Next, his Wild Years.
This era is so named for one of the albums within it, and this time produced some of his best known work. In this era is arguably his most famous album Rain Dogs, as well as Swordfishtrombone and Frank's Wild Years, which comprise a very loosely conceptual trilogy. I would recommend listening to all of these albums if by this point you've captured a taste for his work, as these albums are one of a kind.
This is widely considered to be Tom's tour de force, a trilogy of wild tracks with swinging melodies inspired by the worlds of blues, rock, jazz, and as many experimental noises he and creative collaborator and wife Kathleen Brennan could get their hands on. From here forward in Tom's career, Kathleen becomes an incredibly important creative influence on his career, encouraging him to experiment and continue to push the envelope on his sound. This creative collaboration leads into the follow and final portion of his career.
Finally, his experimental years.
This is full on balls to the wall Tom. Unlike some artists who step away from the experimental in their twilight years, Tom only fell into it harder. The albums from these years, from 1992 until his 2011 semi-retirement, are mostly chaos. Noisy percussion that makes you feel like you're falling down the stairs, and Tom creaking in his signature voice (which to this point has only gotten more extreme) about the Earth dying screaming. These albums are my favourite era of Tom's music, as they explore a kind of musical menagerie that I have never heard elsewhere.
Though I don't recommend starting in this era, it is without a doubt Tom Waits at his finest. Some of the key albums include Bone Machine, which is perhaps his noisiest, most chaotic album that makes you feel like you're on a ship sinking directly into hell, as well as Real Gone, which takes Tom's by now iconic sound and introduces some latin influences as well as hip-hop instrumentation (which is nowhere near as corny as it might sound.) Waits' career is a trip from cover to cover, so if you're looking for a wild discography to explore this summer, he might be the man for you.