What a strange, fascinating career Tom Waits has had. A visual and musical drunken bulldog slumped over a piano, Waits is continuously evolving and constantly surprising, popping up in films like Coffee and Cigarettes and The Outsiders like a friend that hasn't called in years.
His early albums saw him embrace Rat Pack-era big band, basic blues formulas and piano ballads, but it wasn't until his 1983 mindbender Swordfishtrombones that the world first got a taste of Waits' out of control carnival-ride mind.
Swordfishtrombones is completely and utterly indescribable. Snarling from lyric to lyric like DMX, Waits' voice is a monstrous, guttural growl that sounds as if he's forcing air through a rust-covered trachea. His speech is slurred like some bar buffoon, and on some tracks he mumbles spoken-word poetry that sounds like it was written on a bathroom stall. He blathers in the second track, "Shore Leave," "And I'd left all my papers on the Ticonderoga/and was in a bad need of a shave/and so I slopped at the corner on cold chow mein/and shot billiards with a midget/until the rain stopped."
Peppered with brief instrumentals that range from the bizarre to the beautiful, Swordfishtrombones is one of the most curious and stylistically variant albums ever recorded. "I'm gonna whittle you into kindlin'," Waits repeats on "16 Shells from a Thirty-Ought Six," which sounds like it was recorded in a steel mill.
Another highlight is the title track, driven by a strange combination of marimba, conga and dabuki drums and lyrics half-sung, half-spoken by Waits in a style that undoubtedly inspired later vocalists like Primus' Les Claypool and Cake's John McCrea.
But perhaps the most emotionally-arresting moment on the album is "Soldier's Things," handled in perfect fashion and taste in Sam Mendes' recent Desert Storm drama, Jarhead. "Soldier's Things" tells the tragic story of a financially-strapped widow trying to sell the knickknacks and belongings of her killed-in-action husband at a garage sale. "His rifle, his boots full of rocks/and this one is for bravery/and this one is for me/and everything's a dollar/in this box," Waits sings with the perfect marriage of defeat and hopefulness in front of a gorgeous acoustic bass line by Greg Cohen.
If Waits' early work, excellent in its own right, was a little creatively-lacking, and his more recent albums like Real Gone are just too out there and inaccessible, Swordfishtrombones is Waits' crossroad, the perfect harmony of the singer's sane genius and insane sensibilities. For an artist that has never enjoyed mainstream success, the album maintains Waits' challenging, radio-unfriendly reputation but reveals immense reward for those who care to decipher it.
It is truly a journey to listen to it, and listeners will undoubtedly have a broader sense of what can qualify as music because of it. Whatever Waits' intensions are - and they undoubtedly are ever-changing - he can't ask for a better response than that.