Revisiting my extensive music collection, one artist at a time
When I began my 7-part series on Tom Waits’ discography back in 2012, I explained that I wasn’t always a fan and how I once asked a friend, “Does anybody actually like Tom Waits, or are they just pretending to enjoy his music to seem cool?” Fortunately tastes change and I have since come around to his music in a big way (without ever becoming cool myself). Although I initially jumped in via two compilations and slowly accumulated his individual albums, it wasn’t until I revisited his catalog for my blog that I appreciated the greatness of his debut album. Even detractors of his later raspy-voiced material should find a lot to like here, especially if you (mentally or physically) place yourself at the end of a dive bar in the wee hours of the morning.
For more information on this series, please read the opening paragraph of the first post, which featured the debut album from Led Zeppelin.
Right off the bat I have to say that Tom Waits’ Closing Time (1973) is a monster of a debut album. On first listen it’s a pleasant collection of piano-based singer-songwriter fare that was popular at the time (i.e. Elton John & Jackson Browne), with Waits offering a slightly more gruff vocal style, but the songwriting slowly reveals itself to be something special. Unlike much of his later work which is often sung in character, these performances are more heartfelt and direct, and every song is a winner. “Ol’ 55,” which was famously covered by The Eagles, has a folky melody and an instantly memorable hook (“Now the sun’s coming up, I’m riding with lady luck”). He plays the sad, lonesome loser on “I Hope That I Don’t Fall In Love With You.” I knew from the demo version that it was a great song, and this recording is just as powerful. As I mentioned in my first post, the lyrics have a nice twist at the end when he sings “I think that I just fell in love with you” after the woman he’s had his eye on all night has left the bar. “Virginia Avenue” is a bluesy tune with jazz overtones and some blues guitar licks. I love the circular piano melody and muted trumpet. He’s already establishing a theme he would return to often: a sad sack story with an after-hours mood, the bars are closing, there’s nowhere to go and nobody to be with. “Old Shoes (& Picture Postcards)” is a country-folk song with simple harmonies during the second half of each verse (“So goodbye, so long, the road calls me, dear…”). As I expected when I heard the demo, this song needed a fuller arrangement, and I absolutely love it now, especially “Farewell to the girl with the sun in her eyes, can I kiss you and then I’ll be gone?” He uses a couple of children’s songs (“Sing a song of sixpence” and “Hush little baby don’t say a word”) to create a peaceful atmosphere on “Midnight Lullaby,” which is highlighted by muted trumpet and a hushed vocal performance.
There’s something about the higher piano notes during the early part of “Martha” that kills me every time. Also, it has an amazing chorus: “Martha, all I had was you and all you had was me.” It’s a melancholy look back at a love from his younger days, and when we discover that he’s not over her (“I love you, can’t you see?”), it’s truly heartbreaking. The second side of the original LP opened with “Rosie,” a very good country-blues song that pales slightly in comparison to any of the first six songs. “Lonely” features stark piano and aching vocals. Even though it’s a simple song with few lyrics (the word “lonely” repeated often), I love it. “Ice Cream Man” stands out from the rest of the album (which is very ballad heavy) with its uptempo arrangement and suggestive lyrics. It’s a fun tune with hints of Ray Charles’ “Hit The Road Jack.” “Little Trip To Heaven (On The Wings Of Your Love)” should be a piano bar standard. It has another killer melody (“Feel like I’m in heaven when you’re with me”) and a light, jazzy arrangement. Whoever inspired this song obviously made him really happy, and you can hear it in his voice during the “And it’s you” vamp at the end. “Grapefruit Moon” has a melody that blew me away the first time I heard it, making the lyrics “Every time I hear that melody…something breaks inside” somewhat prophetic. This is as catchy and melancholy as a Broadway show tune, and features a gorgeous cello & piano section. The instrumental “Closing Time” wraps up the album. It’s a perfect nightcap; a sweet little tune carried by piano and muted trumpet. This has to go down as one of the best debut albums I’ve ever heard. I didn’t expect it to impact me the way it did. No matter how good his subsequent releases might be, it’s hard to imagine anything surpassing this collection of incredible songs.
I’m curious to find out if other Waits fans also love his debut, or if you prefer later albums like Swordfishtrombones, Rain Dogs and Mule Variations. I love all of the above. If you’re less familiar with his music, please let me know your thoughts on the songs highlighted above. Thanks.