Tom Waits (1983) 

So here we are in 1983. Tom Waits has been making music under the radar for about a decade – world-weary, blues-and-jazz-tinged ballads and rockers, very old school stuff. And then Swordfishtrombones happens. It’s like that same battered troubadour has turned overnight into a ghoulish, psychotic evil clown. Beaten down by drug abuse, hardscrabble living and possible mental illness, he changed his persona overnight into a nightmarish, illustrated boardwalk caricature. Even compared to his old crooner self, this new image was a completely antiquated anomaly in the 80s landscape. He used turn-of-the-century terminology, obscure local patter and truly outre stories and details of life on the fringe.

This was scored to a cacophony of gamelan, oompah band, avant garde, jazz fusion, percussive skiffle, piano ballad and blues elements. Crucially, this messed-up stew of sounds was always organized into simple, effective hooks and repeating melodies, tethered to Waits’ damaged, conversational storytelling. And there was always Tom’s whiskey-soaked growling wheeze on top of everything, somehow staying almost in tune and always providing lots of personality. Here was a willful anachronism in the tech-obsessed 80s. Even today, he retains his mystical, enigmatic aura; ever an outsider, an island unto himself that simply does things differently from everyone else. Tom Waits can’t help but be interesting.

Key track: “Underground”

See also: Rain Dogs – Tom Waits (1985)

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