Revisiting my extensive music collection, one artist at a time

TOM WAITS Part 5 – What’s He Singing In There?

When I first came up with the concept for this blog, I assumed I would listen to each album once while perusing the lyrics and liner notes, and then write about the experience here. I realized very quickly that I couldn’t really get to know any of these albums after just a single listen, even if I was already somewhat familiar with the music, and so I found myself playing each album 3, 4, 5 times or more. In the process I discovered that a lot of incredible music slowly revealed itself; music that I would have otherwise glossed over and forgotten. For the most recent batch of Tom Waits albums, this process has really paid dividends. Had I written my initial impressions after a single listen, not only would I have missed out on a lot of great songs, but I would have rated one of these albums (which I came to appreciate, even with its inherent flaws) as nearly unlistenable. So while this era of his career (the three studio albums he released in the 1990’s) is far from my favorite, I now consider a lot of this music essential (but certainly not easy) listening. For anyone who might have dismissed these records in the past, I implore you to give them the time they deserve.

His first studio album in 5 years, Bone Machine (1992), doesn’t sound drastically different from his previous Island Records releases. Even after playing it once, there were songs that stood out, but I also felt like he was treading familiar ground. After a few additional spins, several more songs began to grow on me, and I could hear that he was incorporating a bit of an Alternative Rock attitude into his performances, which makes sense considering the popularity of Alternative music at that time. Primus’ Les Claypool plays electric bass on album opener “Earth Died Screaming,” a percussive/tribal song that finds Waits speaking the verses in a raspy voice and bellowing during the choruses (“Well the earth died screaming, while I lay dreaming…of you”). There’s also a cool outro on the Chamberlain organ. “Dirt In The Ground” is a slow & mournful blues song with a downbeat horn section and strong raspy vocals. He really puts life & death in perspective here (“Ask a king or a beggar and the answer they’ll give is, we’re all gonna be just dirt in the ground”). After a distorted 45-second intro, “All Stripped Down” turns into a simple blues tune with a subtly cool arrangement and nice guitar work by Joe Gore. I love the alternating falsetto vocals with the more Captain Beefheart sound of “All stripped down, all stripped, all stripped!” The Springsteen comparison returns with “Who Are You,” which sounds like one of Bruce’s sparse story songs (“All the lies that you tell, I believed them so well”) and features an emotive vocal performance from Waits. “Jesus Gonna Be Here” is the spiritual opposite of the aforementioned “Dirt In The Ground,” offering the listener hope & faith. This is a great, slightly funky blues/gospel song with a cool twangy guitar sound from Larry Taylor.

“In The Colosseum” grew on me a little more with each listen. It’s another slow, clanging stomper with muted production, a great chorus, and excellent drumming from someone named Brain. “Murder In The Red Barn” has an excellent creepy atmosphere, but Joe Marquez’s banjo adds a down-home, old-timey folk vibe. I’m not sure if there’s a specific story to this song, but it stuck with me almost immediately. My favorite song here is “I Don’t Wanna Grow Up,” an actual fun-sounding sing-along tune featuring one of his most upbeat melodies, with Waits strumming loudly on acoustic guitar. However, the lyrics are anything but happy, sung from the perspective of a child/teenager seeing how difficult life can get when you’re older. Guitarists Keith Richards and his future collaborator, noted session man Waddy Wachtel, appear on album closer “That Feel.” I like the way each verse builds in intensity and volume, and especially the quiet start of each verse (i.e. “There’s one thing you can’t lose, it’s that feel”). You can hear Richards’ distinct warbling vocals in the third verse. The songs I’ve mentioned are the ones that made the biggest impact, but there are a few others that were also notable. “Such A Scream” sounds like a slow-moving freight train, with a percussive drive and various shakers, horns and other sound effects. “A Little Rain” is a pretty but sad piano ballad, where the world (in various vignettes) is crumbling but “a little rain never hurt no one.” The character in “Goin’ Out West” is a braggart moving to L.A., believing he’s the coolest guy in town. I really like the fuzzy guitar tone and tribal tom-tom rhythm. “Whistle Down The Wind” is an interesting mix of country and barroom blues, with pedal steel guitar adding that country element and Los Lobos’ David Hidalgo adding an off-key vibe with his violin and accordion. This is yet another of Waits’ albums that I don’t love from beginning to end, but there are enough great songs to make it worth repeated listens. It also won the Grammy for Best Alternative Album, so it probably helped introduce him to a whole new audience. It’s definitely a record that will continue to grow in stature for me over the years.

He returned a year later with The Black Rider (1993), probably the most difficult Waits album for me to get into; a collaboration with theater director Robert Wilson and author William S. Burroughs (whose middle initial was omitted from the credits here) based on an old German folk tale that was also the basis for German composer Weber’s opera, Der Freischütz. That opera was one of my favorites when I studied classical music in college, but I haven’t heard it in years. I’ll have to dig up my cassette copy soon and see how it holds up. But let’s get back to The Black Rider. The first time I listened to it I wasn’t sure I’d be able to sit through it again, but I’m glad I made the effort. It’s certainly far from his best (or most accessible) work, but a lot of wonderful music was revealed during those subsequent spins. There are 20 songs and it lasts nearly an hour, but many of the tracks are links between songs or merely incidental music, so I will just focus on the songs that had me thinking, “this is a pretty good album after all.” He’s the manic carnival barker yelling through a megaphone on opening track “Lucky Day (Overture).” More than ever before, you know you’re in for a wild ride. “The Black Rider” sounds like a scratchy old record, sung in an over-enunciated Eastern European accent (“So come on in, it ain’t no sin. Take off your skin and dance around in your bones”). Seems like the black rider is actually the devil or the grim reaper (“I’ll drink your blood like wine”; “May I use your skull for a bone?”). For “November,” the musical saw gives it an eerie feel, but the accordion and plucked banjo melody keep it grounded in ballad territory (“November, it only believes in a pile of dead leaves, and a moon that’s the color of bone”). I really like the middle section (also repeated at the end) of “Just The Right Bullets,” which features manic percussion and a Spaghetti Western-esque melody.

“’T’ain’t No Sin” is seriously weird, with William Burroughs’ deadpan spoken vocals (“…and dance around in your bones”), but curiously I came to love it. I also enjoyed the bass clarinet melody, which has quite an interesting tone. “The Briar And The Rose” sounds like an old European folk song mixed with a standard Waits ballad, and the church organ sound gives it a hymn-like feel. “Russian Dance” is a swirling cacophony that sounds exactly like its title; an instrumental with an instantly hummable melody that makes you feel like you’re in the old country. I also like how it seemingly ends several times, only to start up again. “I’ll Shoot The Moon” is a classic Waits ballad, an actual love song amidst the maelstrom of weirdness (“I want to take you out to the fair, here’s a red rose ribbon for your hair”) which reminds me of the showtune, “I Could’ve Danced All Night.” “Crossroads” is a tension-filled blues tune with hauntingly weird Chamerblain organ and wacky lyrics by Burroughs. “Gospel Train” is far from the genre indicated in the title with the exception of its lyrical themes. The weirdly hypnotic train whistle and haunting bass clarinet blasts make for a very wacky train ride. “Oily Night” sounds like a voodoo ritual, with tribal drums and the words “oily night” repeated numerous times in an ultra deep voice. It’s scary, but once you hear it you’ll never forget it. “Lucky Day” finds him weeping in his beer like an old Irish pub song, but it ends up being somewhat uplifting (“Don’t cry for me for I’m going away, and I’ll be back some lucky day”). This would not be a good introductory album for the uninitiated, and even fans of his other Island albums might find this to be a hard nut to crack, but I can safely say that with a little patience you’ll find a lot to like here.

After a 6-year hiatus, Waits returned with a new album, Mule Variations (1999), on a new record label, Anti-. He doesn’t break any new ground here, but delivers a set of mostly excellent songs in the various styles he’s become known for (blues, barking and ballads), with a couple of new twists. The track that made an impact on me the first time I heard it over 10 years ago, which isn’t actually a “song,” is “What’s He Building?” This could be the basis for a modern suspense/horror movie, like a cross between Rear Window and Saw, with Waits watching the questionable activities taking place in his neighbor’s garage, all set to some of the creepiest non-soundtrack sound effects you’ll ever hear. The rest of Mule Variations is nothing like this, but it’s still the song I will always most identify this album. “Hold On” is a great slow bluesy shuffle and could be mistaken for a Steve Earle song (especially in his vocal delivery). Stephen Hodges’ shaker subtly drives the song with understated guitar work from Waits, Joe Gore and Marc Ribot. I wonder if he wrote this from God’s point of view, giving hope to people who are down and out (“Take my hand, I’m standing right here, you gotta hold on”). “Pony” is slow and mournful with fingerpicked guitar and pump organ, sounding like something Springsteen would include on albums like The Ghost Of Tom Joad (“I hope my pony, I hope my pony, I hope my pony knows the way back home”). John Hammond blasts away on the harmonica like he’s riding a boxcar. “Picture In A Frame” is among the most beautiful piano ballads he’s ever written. It has a very simple structure, with good things happening “ever since I put your picture in a frame,” yet I sense there’s an underlying component of sadness that the lyrics don’t fully express.

“Georgia Lee” is a true heartbreaker about a young girl who is found dead (“Why wasn’t God watching? Why wasn’t God listening? Why wasn’t God there for Georgia Lee?”). The Steve Earle comparison returns on “Take It With Me,” a piano ballad with a heartfelt drawled vocal performance. There’s a light and lilting melody that’s also quite melancholy, and the emphasis on certain words during the chorus is key (“I’m gonna take it with me when I go”). The songs I’ve discussed so far are my favorites, but they’re not the only songs worth mentioning. “Big In Japan” is a classic Waits percussive album opener with a killer guitar tone and an instantly memorable “sing”-along chorus, claustrophobic production and processed vocals. “Lowside Of The Road” is a back porch blues with scratchy production adding an old-time feel. “Get Behind The Mule” is slow & bluesy with light bongos, sounding like it was recorded at the kitchen table. It’s not so much a work song (to get folks through hard labor) as it is a song about hard work (“Get behind the mule in the morning and plow”). At nearly 7 minutes with a repeated verse-chorus structure, it’s a little long but also hypnotic. “Cold Water” has a simple blues structure and a guitar riff that sounds like a slowed-down version of The Rolling Stones’ “Honky Tonk Women.” “Eyeball Kid” isn’t a pleasant listen but it’s captivating, especially those vocal samples from old gospel records. I have no idea what it’s about, though (A circus freak? A sci-fi creation? A character like Pete Townshend’s “Tommy”?). “Chocolate Jesus” is a sexually suggestive blues tune with humorous lyrics about “falling on my knees every Sunday at Zerelda Lee’s candy store” where the Chocolate Jesus “makes me feel good inside” and “keep(s) me satisfied.” Last but not least, “Filipino Box Spring Hog” is a silly song with big booming drums and shouted Captain Beefheart-esque vocals about cooking up the title animal. I love those muted trumpet hits and Charlie Musselwhite’s harmonica. My biggest complaint about Mule Variations is that, at 70 minutes, it’s a little too long. I’m a fan of the 35-45 minute album, and with only a few exceptions anything longer than that usually overstays its welcome. Still, that’s a minor complaint, and I consider this as good as anything he’s done since the ‘70s (with the exception of the brilliant Rain Dogs).

Waits didn’t release much new material in the ‘90s, with the three albums discussed in this post being his only output during that decade. In the following decade he didn’t become any more prolific (with just 3 more new albums), but we also got to hear a 3-CD collection of rarities as well as another live album. I’ve already begun listening to his next few albums and, as has been the case so far, they seem to slowly unveil themselves with each successive listen. I’ll be back soon to share my thoughts on those records as I approach the end of his discography (so far).


7 comments on “TOM WAITS Part 5 – What’s He Singing In There?

  1. Gil
    June 12, 2012

    I can’t wait to know what you think of Blood Money.


    • I’ve been listening to it a lot this week, along with Alice and Real Gone, but probably won’t have time to write my next post until early next week. I hope to hear what you think of these albums then. Thanks for stopping by.



  2. Jon Lyness
    June 15, 2012

    More great stuff, Rich. No rush on this (in fact, it can wait until your final review), but of all the Tom Waits albums you’ve heard, what would you recommend as essential for the Waits newbie? I only have Frank’s Wild Years, Mule Variations and Bad as Me. Ideally I’d probably want one of his best from the 70s, as I don’t have any, and maybe another great middle-to-late-period album or two from the 80s-00s.


    • Thanks, Jon. I’m certainly no expert on Waits, even after spending the last couple of months revisiting his entire catalog. I’m sure longtime fans would have a different take on his best albums, but so far I would highly recommend his debut, Closing Time, for the beauty and consistency of the songwriting (it really sounds like nothing else in his catalog) and Rain Dogs as the best example of his post-singer/songwriter years. There are others that are also excellent, and I’m interested to see how much I like Bad As Me now that I know the rest of his catalog so much better (I thought it was great when it came out earlier this year), but the two I mentioned are probably my two favorites. I’ll be curious to hear your thoughts on them, and any other Waits albums you check out.


  3. Jon Lyness
    July 3, 2012

    Little late but thanks, Rich! I checked out Rain Dogs online. I’m sure I’m going to like it… in fact, John Hammond (and Waits) borrowed liberally from it for the Wicked Grin album, so I know some of the songs already. On the list!


    • Jon, I will definitely check out the John Hammond “Wicked Grin” album based on your recommendation. Not only did I enjoy the song you linked to in an earlier comment, but I noticed that at least 2 or 3 songs from the “Orphans” collection first appeared on Hammond’s album. I hope you get into Rain Dogs. I can’t imagine anyone who likes Waits’ music not enjoying it.

      Have a great July 4th.


  4. Pingback: KamerTunesBlog Year In Review 2012 | KamerTunesBlog

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