Tom Waits is truly one of the greatest musical minds of our time. His unique song-writing style sets him apart from the competition… miles apart. Waits’ penchant for morose and often times darker music really allows him to use a variety of instruments. Some of these instruments makeshift and unique to Waits himself. If that doesn’t sound unique enough, I haven’t even mentioned his six-pack a day voice, which in itself can take on different “personalities”. Sometimes he sounds like a demon rising from the netherworld to swallow the listener whole. Sometimes he sounds like a crotchety old hobo. Sometimes he sounds like a 65-year-old female gospel singer. No… really. All of these things combined make it very hard for the average listener to get past the first couple of songs they hear. His voice alone can understandably be an immediate turn-off. That’s a shame because once one becomes a fan, they become a loyal one. His voice actually becomes endearing, as does everything else about him.
In this post, as in all of my How To… posts, I will tell you how to access the majesty that is Tom Waits’ music. I’ll start by pointing out his most accessible albums and work from there. I must stress the importance of listening to albums and not just songs. It is the best way to get an idea of where the artist is emotionally and artistically. It also sets a nice timeline, giving you an almost birds eye view of the growth an artist goes through. It really helps in the appreciating process. Here goes…
Where to Start
I would start with either one of these two albums. They are smack dab in the middle of his career and serve as a happy medium between his earlier lounge singer kind of groove and his later creepier material. Both 1983’s Swordfishtrombones and 1985’s Rain Dogs have the same feel to them. They are both gritty jazz-rockers with a heart of gold. Waits takes full advantage of a horn section on both discs, as well as driving, organic sounding percussion, giving them a lush, in your face sound. Both discs are full of interesting characters doing interesting things like playing pool with midgets and dying their in a Texaco bathroom. At this point, Waits hasn’t really started with his darker lyrical material yet. These albums are just plain fun which is why they are a good first step. I remind you that his voice will grow on you, I repeat, it will grow on you. I swear.
Now that you love those two albums and Waits’ sandpaper vocals, it’s time to get a little dark. With an opening track like “The Earth Died Screaming”, I think 1992’s Bone Machine is a good place to do it. Here Waits uses quiet, brooding piano and the lower range of the horn family to paint a bleak almost apocalyptic setting throughout most of the album… in a good way. Waits’ varying vocal identities really play a big part on this disc. So now you’ve got the grit and the gloom under your belt. We can now move on to more of the same. Once Waits’ got into this gear he never really downshifted. Who needs to downshift when you’re in the fast lane to awesome-town?
The Best of the Rest
Blood Money, Real Gone and Orphans are the obvious next step. Pretty much take all of the above and mix it all together in a pot. Then take the best bits out of that pot and eat up. These are the best of what Waits has to offer. Brilliant at their worst. Hopefully by this point you’ll fully understand why Tom Waits is a certified genius. After this point feel free to explore his earlier days. It’s not as much part of his identity as of now. Most of it plays out like a scratchy Sinatra. It’s actually really enjoyable, it’s just not representative of what he was really capable of. Definitely worth a listen.