Tom Waits’ new album is so weird that Asylum Records decided not to release it, but it’s so good that Island was smart enough to pick it up. Half of the fifteen cuts — the dirty blues, poetry recitals and odd instrumentals — would not sound out of place on a Captain Beefheart album. The rest of the record consists of gorgeous Waitsian melodies, which haven’t been collected in such quantity since his ten-year-old debut album.
It’s easy to forget that Tom Waits is one of the great American pop songwriters. His voice is so ravaged that his albums have often been cluttered and overproduced in order to compensate. On the self-produced Swordfish trombones, Waits wisely sticks to spare accompaniment, which allows his rough-hewn voice to achieve a real tenderness. As for the songs, many of them feature men who are caught up, broken down or separated from loved ones by war. In “Soldier’s Things,” the saddest song on the album and Waits’ most stunning composition in years, a mother is having a yard sale: “A tinker, a tailor/A soldier’s things/His rifle, his boots full of rocks/And this one is for bravery, and this one is for me/Everything’s a dollar in this box.”
Of course, it wouldn’t be a Tom Waits album without the rhymes (“He got twenty years for lovin’ her/From some Oklahoma governor”) and deadbeat humor. “Frank’s Wild Years” contains a hilarious monologue about a guy cutting out on his wife, “a spent piece of used jet trash [with] a little Chihuahua named Carlos/That had some kind of skin disease/And was totally blind.” The combination of weirdness, heartfelt lyrics and haunting instrumentals adds up to a superior LP and an opportunity to rediscover Tom Waits.