Tom Waits – Swordfishtrombones (1983)
Back in the dark days of the year 2000, when the biggest band in Britain were Travis and something called Limp Bizkit were moving across the Atlantic like an airborne disease and encouraging 19 year-olds to be comfortable with their disgusting obesity, Radiohead released an album called Kid A. The furore in the music press was unbelievable. They claimed that such a radical about-face from a major artist had never happened before and it was commercial suicide. Radiohead went on to become the biggest band in the world and in hindsight the change of direction they took was probably less radical than that between Suede and Dog Man Star or The Great Escape and Blur. And definitely less so than the stylistic leap between One From The Heart and Swordfishtrombones.
Radiohead were indeed a major artist, merely developing the ideas they had chucked out on Fitter Happier and a few B-Sides. No matter what happened, they would not get dropped by their label because regardless of the reviews, people would buy the record. In the end eight million people bought the record. With Swordfishtrombones, Tom Waits, not a major artist, ran the risk of never selling another record again.
Never has such a record ever polarised an artist’s work in the way that this record has. Effectively we look at Waits’ catalogue as pre and post Swordfishtrombones. On his previous few albums he had been leaning towards the guitar-blues sound, but the immediate precursor to this, the gorgeous country-jazz soundtrack to the disastrous Francis Ford Coppolla film One From The Heart couldn’t have been further away from the squat Russian horns and glass-throated screaming of Underground, the first track on this album.
The first Tom Waits album I bought was The Asylum Years; a compilation of his best tracks from his days as a blues-jazz scatter and crooner, which contain some of his best ever songs. Fair enough, by the last track his vocals sound like they’re coming from a cheese-grater but there are very definite melodies. On this record, very few of the tracks could even be classed as songs.
It is one of the most bizarre albums ever made, yet therein lies its genius; no-one had heard anything like this before. Shore Leave is, in my opinion, the best track on the album, and it comprises a spoken-word narrative of a sailor lost in a Blade Runner-esque cityscape consorting with midgets and eating cold chow-mein while the main instruments playing are a marimba and the sampled sound of a chair being scraped along a floor. If you can find me a more atmospheric piece of music, I’ll give you a quid.
The ballads stand out as well, obviously, as they are Waits’ raison d’etre, and Soldiers’ Things is up there with anything he’s ever done, but for those of you who are Waits virgins and want to hear a type of music that you have genuinely never heard before…
Best Tracks: Shore Leave, Town With No Cheer, Soldier’s Things
Best Moment: The sheer shock at the vocal on Underground, when you realise this man is probably smoking eighty cigarettes a day.
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