Tom Waits

      Closing Time (Asylum, 1973)
     The Heart of Saturday Night (Asylum, 1974)
     Nighthawks at the Diner (Asylum, 1975)
     Small Change (Asylum, 1976)
     Foreign Affairs (Asylum, 1977)
    Blue Valentine (Asylum, 1978)
    Heartattack and Vine (Asylum, 1980)
     One from the Heart (Sony, 1982)
      Swordfishtrombones (Island, 1983)
      Rain Dogs (Island, 1985)
     Anthology of Tom Waits (Asylum, 1985)
    Franks Wild Years (Island, 1987)
    Big Time (Island, 1988)
     The Early Years, Vol. 1 (Bizarre/Straight, 1991)
     Bone Machine (Island, 1992)
     The Early Years, Vol. 2 (Bizarre/Straight, 1993)
   The Black Rider (Island, 1993)
     Beautiful Maladies: The Island Years (Island, 1998)
      Mule Variations (Anti-, 1999)
      Used Songs 1973–1980 (Rhino, 2001)
     Alice (Anti-, 2002)
     Blood Money (Anti-, 2002)
     Real Gone (Anti-, 2004)
     Orphans: Brawlers, Bawlers & Bastards (Anti-, 2006)
     Glitter and Doom Live (Anti-, 2009)

Rasping his way through comic-nostalgic cocktail jazz and garrulous streams of Beat-derived wordplay, Tom Waits rose from the seamy side of Los Angeles in the Seventies. Some early, sparse demo tapes from 1971 and 1972 are compiled on the 1991 release The Early Years. Lingering like a bad hangover, he eventually developed a musical approach to match both his devil-may-care wit and his bluesy sense of despair. Waits' early albums are dreadfully uneven, thanks mostly to his parched voice and well-lubricated point of view.

The less Waits marinates his tales of floozies and losers in alcoholic sentiment, the better his albums get. Small Change is where his half-mad maundering style gels into something more than a hip novelty act. The slippery-sly evasions of "The Piano Has Been Drinking (Not Me)" and the amphetamine spiel of "Step Right Up" hold up to close and repeated inspections—more than you can say for many spoken comedy albums. "Singing" might not be an accurate description of what he does on Foreign Affairs, but Waits does expand his somewhat rigidly defined boundaries, duetting with Bette Midler on "I Never Talk to Strangers" and offering the disquieting "Burma Shave" amid the expected bleary reveries.

After releasing two comparatively rote thumb-twiddlers (Blue Valentine and Heartattack and Vine), Waits jumped labels and opted for a challenging, clear-headed approach on Swordfishtrombones and Rain Dogs. The down-and-out subject matter remains the same, but Waits seems to be in full control of his voice. Stellar session crews on both albums flesh out the compositions with abrasive rock, jazz and the dissonant oompah expressionism of a Kurt Weill musical. More substantial than his early albums could ever have suggested, it's still not exactly easy to digest. Naturally attracted to the theater, Waits followed his triumphant re-emergence with the sketchy Franks Wild Years (excerpts from a musical play), the even-vaguer concert movie/play Big Time and the grating carnival-barker expressionism of Black Rider (songs written for a play by frequent collaborator Robert Wilson).

With the release of Mule Variations, his first studio album in seven years (and first for indie label Anti-), Waits established his personae for the next decade: Southern Gothic shed-dweller, dust-kicking badass, tear-jerking balladeer, and avuncular hero to oddballs. All his post-Rain Dogs trademarks were there in spades—the staccaco prod of guitarist Marc Ribot, the metal clang of errant percussion, the world-weary yowl—but now with a bluesy, earthy lilt that makes ballads like "House Where Nobody Lives" absolutely devastating. Alice and Blood Money were written for two more Wilson plays (from 1992 and 2000 respectively), but were approached with the same heavy-hearted pathos and singular direction to make them on par with any of his albums this era (same goes for the monumental three-disc odds-and-ends comp Orphans: Brawlers, Bawlers & Bastards). Real Gone takes his salty mariner clatter to his noisiest arena yet—futzing with demented hip-hop scratchery, allowing Ribot to prod his guitar like a sighing, yawping animal, and making "Clang Boom Steam" sound just like its title suggests.

Portions of this album guide appeared in The New Rolling Stone Album Guide (Fireside, 2004).

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