For his second album, Tom Waits moved deeper into cool-cat jazz territory, for a distinctly anachronistic sound. The Heart Of Saturday Night is a mix of finger-snapping riffs and a few slower standards that would help establish his growing reputation as a premier American songwriter.
The “jazz” on this album isn’t the fusion that had become popular around this time, nor was it even bebop. The sound here is more like the type of forties throwbacks Bette Midler would popularize (in fact, hers and Tom’s paths would cross from time to time). Piano and upright bass anchor most of the songs, with a few horns and strings added for color.
“New Coat Of Paint” begins our evening on the town, a mood interrupted by the pensive paradoxes in “San Diego Serenade”, then it’s back to the established sound with “Semi Suite”, the first of many tributes to the long-distance truck driver. If you came in at the back end of his catalog, you could be forgiven for expecting “Shiver Me Timbers” to sound like Popeye; here it’s a simple wish to sail away from one’s troubles. “Diamonds On My Windshield” puts him back on the highway, but the title track keeps it all local.
Side two takes a turn towards feeling sorry for oneself in bars. First he’s “Fumbling With The Blues”, begging “Please Call Me, Baby”. Then he’s stuck in a “Depot, Depot”, and “Drunk On The Moon”. There are some nice moments here to be sure, particularly on the two slower laments, but he’d’ve been better off sticking to two songs instead of stretching them into four. But all is redeemed at the end of the night, watching “The Ghosts Of Saturday Night” from the point of view of its subtitle, “After Hours At Napoleone’s Pizza House”. It’s a poetic perspective that would be even more pronounced on his next album.
While The Heart Of Saturday Night has its moments, it does suffer from second album syndrome, in that he used the best items from his backlog on his first. He’s still finding his way here, and would continue to do so.
Tom Waits The Heart Of Saturday Night (1974)—2½