With a couple of years off, during which he married the love of his life, Tom Waits also found time to change labels and rethink his approach to record-making. When Swordfishtrombones finally appeared, it would have been a shock to those who were expecting another album of saloon laments. But for those paying attention, despite the change in general sound, it was a logical progression.
What would become revered as his “Island trilogy” was marked by a left turn into what could be disparagingly categorized as circus music. This wasn’t such a stretch, since anyone who’d listened to any of his albums might have guessed that when it came to the carnival, Our Hero would be more entranced by the freaks in the sideshow than by the girl on the high wire. (Well, maybe just a little.)
His voice, as raspy as ever, carries these songs as well as they’ve carried anything in his catalog. The difference from here, however, is that he found his new inspiration in the guttural blues of Captain Beefheart, taking his inspiration from that band’s primitive approach and reveling in the wonder of “found sounds”. This is apparent from the beginning, as “Underground” lays a foundation for his career going forward, with Fred Tackett’s guitar poking its way through the barest of arrangements. “Shore Leave” places a shaggy story up against a surprising chorus, just like he always did. The wacky “Dave The Butcher” instrumental is an odd prelude to the torch song of “Johnsburg, Illinois”, the first of many Valentines to his wife. “16 Shells From A 30-6” establishes the junkyard sound that would dominate the trilogy, with barely a chord to hang its melody on. The lament of Australian sobriety in “Town With No Cheer”, nice as it is, seems little more than a continuation of his alcoholic wanderings, but what truly wins is the portrait of desolate suburbia as depicted “In The Neighborhood”.
“Just Another Sucker On The Vine” is a classic Waits melody, here transferred to the harmonium where previously the piano would have been the vehicle. A foreshadowing of sorts is held within the monologue about “Frank’s Wild Years”, proof that there are few storytellers of his ilk. That can get buried within the wordplay of “Swordfishtrombone”, but the relentless boogie of “Down, Down, Down” shows his ability to get a new song out of the same word. “Soldier’s Things” is a potentially heartbreaking peek at a tag sale, made even more surreal when it was covered by Paul Young. The bitter “Gin Soaked Boy” is the last look back at his old sound, a simple plod through accusation. “Trouble’s Braids” is an experimental monologue within a tone poem, while the closing “Rainbirds” manages to foreshadow his next step while delivering one of the prettiest instrumental performances of his career to date.
Swordfishtrombones was definitely a departure for those who’d tried to keep up with Tom thus far, but more than that, it was an exciting introduction for those coming in late. For anyone who’d discovered Tom Waits with this album, the selections on Closing Time and Small Change would have seemed almost quaint and pedestrian. Starting here, he’d embarked on a journey guaranteed to entice as well as it would confound.
Tom Waits Swordfishtrombones (1983)—4½