Tom Waits Reviews

My reviews of albums by Tom Waits.

1973: Closing Time (???)

I have only listened to this once and not reviewed it. Read my reviews of albums released in 1973.

1974: The Heart of Saturday Night (???)

I’ve listened to all Waits’ early albums once, years ago, but not recently and I have only one review. Read my reviews of music from 1974.

1975: Nighthawks at the Diner (???)

Read my reviews of 1975 albums.

1976: Small Change (8/10)

It’s hard to know what I would think of this album (or any of his earlier albums) if Waits hadn’t gone off on his emphasis stylistic departure. I was born only a couple of years before it happened so it’s very unlikely that I wouldn’t have been exposed to at least the idea of Waits’ second act before I heard this. And this one ended up being one of the first albums of his I heard, though at the same time as at least one of his early ’80s masterpieces.

Before essentially creating his own sound, Waits was a literate, vaguely jazzy songwriter. Had he never changed his sound, he would likely still be remembered fondly for his distinct persona.

He leans very heavily into that persona on most of small change – he’s a drunk, he’s doing it for the money to keep drinking, oh and he just happens to be incredibly talented lyrically. There are numerous memorable lines in these songs. Certainly more than you would expect for Waits’ shtick.

There is some deviation from the shtick, of course, both in terms of some of the lyrics but also in terms of the arrangements. A guitarless record was fairly brave in the mid ’70s but going one further and recording, for example, a song with just his voice and drums shows that the great musical inventions of the ’80s and ’90s didn’t come out of nowhere. The strings are overdone but Waits’ voice is mostly a cure for whenever they’re used. (It’s impossible to make him sound syrupy no matter how hard they try.)

I think the album holds up pretty well and it would hold up even better if we didn’t know what he did later in his career. It’s certainly among the best he made before the transformation, maybe it’s the best. (I haven’t listened to all of the pre-transformation records and the ones I’ve listened to, I haven’t heard recently.) But it’s still a bit of an acquired taste if you’re not into the idea of a drunken but hyper-literate piano player.

Read my reviews of albums released in 1976.

1977: Foreign Affairs (???)

Read my reviews of music reviews from 1977.

1978: Blue Valentine (7/10)

I am very a much a fan of the Tom Waits who reinvented himself and who gave the world a unique sound. I am less a fan of the early Tom Waits, whose music was far less inventive and imaginative. That’s not to say I dislike ’70s Waits, more to say that I prefer his music from the 1980s onward and, if I had to choose, I wouldn’t really bother with his early music.


Well, Waits has always been a relatively interesting songwriter, with lyrics that deal with people who don’t normally get song lyrics – or who flat out don’t exist – and with his completely unique voice. But int the early years, his arrangements feel safe and sometimes even cliche. That’s less true on his first couple of records, but by the late ’70s, he had been milking this shtick for quite some time: a slow piano blues or a peppy jazzy number, or his voice drowned in syrupy strings. Once you’ve heard some of this, you’ve heard most of it, and all you have left is the lyrics.

The lyrics are above average, of course. They are vivid and they can make you feel a range of emotions. Waits is a consummate story teller, able to fit a short story into three or four minutes. Some of the lyrics here are among his best but some of them are not. It’s not his greatest set of songs, though how it stands up among the ’70s records, I’m not sure, as this is only the third I’ve heard (if I remember correctly).

Frankly, I’m glad Waits had whatever life-changing experience he had which made him decide to drastically rethink how he arranged his songs because this shtick is a little tired at this point. I still think he’s a better songwriter than most of others to emerge in the 1970s – if not all of them – but the arrangements feel formulaic and beneath him, especially if you know what he would do in the 1980s – which, of course, you couldn’t at the time.

7/10 for the quality of the lyrics.

Read my reviews of 1978 albums.

1980: Heartattack and Vine (???)

Read my reviews of albums released in 1980.

1982: One From the Heart Motion Picture Soundtrack (???) with Crystal Gayle

Read my reviews of music from 1982.

1983: Swordfishtrombones (10/10)

Waits’ drastic, mid-career transformation from barroom drunkard balladeer to avant garde cabaret blues singer is a testament to how important performance and arrangement (and, to a lesser extent, production) are in recordings. Waits the songwriter didn’t change all that much, but Waits the performer did, and so did Waits the arranger and band leader. And Waits the producer let it happen and found a way to make it sound, well, not ’80s.

Sure, Waits’ songs have changed somewhat. He’s arguably embraced song fragments more (and instrumentals); he’s less determined to present his songs within the tradition he was writing in during the 1970s. And his lyrics have, at times, grown to encompass topics they never had before, and when he does cover topics he has covered previously, he often leans into the weirdness and idiosyncrasy more than he ever did previously. But these songs really aren’t that different from the songs he was writing in the 1970s. (“Johnsburg, Illinois” could fit on any previous Waits record.)

What’s changed, of course, is everything else. Waits has fully embraced his unique voice, doing more with it than he used to, such as the scatting on “Shore Leave.” More importantly, though, is the bizarre “junkyard” sound around the songs, featuring all sorts of weird production and other effects, as well as Tackett’s rough guitar playing. Nothing about this sound was common in 1983.

Waits and his engineers have managed to capture these clanks and clacks and drones with clarity and space that make the record sound like it could have been recorded whenever. There’s nothing about this sound that dates it to 1983. While just about everyone else of his generation was trying to find the newest technology or hopping on the gated drum bandwagon, Waits made a record that sounds timeless.

This is the Tom Waits record, because it’s where his career truly began. It may not be his absolute best set of songs, but it is the seminal record that gave us the Waitsian sound that has been forever identified him since, and hugely influential on later musicians (particularly of the indie rock persuasion).

My #2 album of 1983. Read my reviews of 1983 albums.

1985: Rain Dogs (10/10)

Tom Waits’ second record to fully embrace his new sound is obviously less significant than the first, if only because the first time he did it, he essentially created a new subgenre within Americana that was so unusual it essentially just has to be called ‘Waitsian.’

But I think it’s just as good an album and, whatever it lacks it historical importance compared with Swordfishtrombones it more than makes up with in songs – both some of Waits more distinctive songs and some of his most accessible – and in the performances – both from the man himself, who manages a wide diversity, despite his voice, and particularly from Marc Ribot.

Here is one of America’s best and most distinct songwriters fully in his element. Everything about the album sounds like it belongs, despite a wide variety of sounds. The arrangements conjure a sense of time and place (even if that time and place is, perhaps, imaginary) and most if not all the songs on the record are among his very best.

An absolute classic.

Tied for my #1 album of 1985. Read my reviews of albums released in 1985.

1987: Frank’s Wild Years (9/10)

I have never seen the play but, from the sounds of this album, I’m not sure how much it stands together as a narrative work. Certainly the album doesn’t seem like any kind of opera (if it was ever meant to be that) or even a coherent song-cycle (as some of the songs don’t appear to be related to the theme). (Maybe they are, but I can’t hear it.)

But despite the narrative flaws of this work, there are lot of strong songs here, including some of Waits’ very best songs.

The arrangements remain distinctively waitsian, excepting the alternate versions of a few tracks, which sound just slightly less waitisan. But that does feel a little repetitive at this point, as this is the third album in his distinctive style. Yes, he invented the style (or his wife did), but isn’t there just the faintest sense of treading water artistically when you create an ostensibly narrative work ostensibly based upon the narratives of one of your earlier songs? (I say ostensibly because I don’t see an actual connection.)

The only other criticism I have is that I’m not sure the two versions of two songs are really necessary on an already fairly long album.

It’s still a pretty good record, it just has flaws that the first two records of his career renaissance did not possess.

Read my reviews of music released in 1987.

1991: Night on Earth Motion Picture Soundtrack (???)

Seen the movie. Never actually listened to the soundtrack separately.

1992: Bone Machine (10/10)

Somewhere in the mists of time, I wrote the following:

Waits takes his unique sound to its logical conclusion and pairs it with some of his bleakest lyrics and, conversely, some of his most perversely hopeful. The album title is kind of literal as some of the percussion sounds like I imagine bones would sound if they were played as percussion (particularly on “The Earth Died Screaming”).

I’m not sure if this is his greatest accomplishment but it’s pretty damn close: the aesthetic matches the lyrics and Waits’ delivery about as well as it ever had and this is pretty close to his best set of songs.

An absolute masterpiece and one of the essential Waits records.

I don’t know that I have much to add to that review. This is one of Waits’ best sets of songs and the extremity of the arrangements feels as appropriate as any he’s ever concocted.

My #2 album of 1992. Read my reviews of 1992 albums.

1993: The Black Rider (6/10)

I’m always willing to listen to any Tom Waits record, particularly any record since he changed his sound, but I also agree with the general consensus that work written (or assembled) for stage shows rarely meets the level of an artist’s best work, especially when that artist is a singer-songwriter (who, by their very nature, does not normally write songs for plays). That’s what this record is, stage music.

As may or may not be appropriate to this kind of project, Waits really leans in to his theatricality here. Songs which, in other contexts, might already be somewhat theatrical feel excessively theatrical here, sometimes in terms of Waits’ performance – he is at his most over-the-top in terms of delivery of some of these vocals – and sometimes in terms of the production (particular mics or effects on his voice, sound effects which feel like they are from the stage production, etc). It borders on cliche.

As others have noted, Waits songs here range from among some of his better songs to filler instrumental tracks, of the kind you would normally find in a project like this. I’m happy to listen to that kind of thing, as I really enjoy Waits’ aesthetic, but I can’t imagine someone who didn’t already love Waits finding much in these interludes to get excited about. Sure, they’d probably work fine in the theatre, but on record they exist as background music. Also, as others have noted, some of these sound like outtakes from other albums, or ideas that never got turned into proper songs.

So this is very much a record for the Waits fan, after said fan has already found their way through all his best stuff. I rate it so high only because I really like his music and I generally enjoy listening to even his less successful projects. This is definitely fans-only.

Read my reviews of albums released in 1993.

1999: Mule Variations (8/10)

At this point, anyone who has followed Waits since his left-turn in the early 1980s knows what to expect from a Waits album. Aside from from production choices, most Waits albums of the last 35 years have sounded rather similar to each other, with everything in his own inimitable style, and the only major difference record to record is the quality of the songs.

This is a particularly large set. Without looking it up, I would stand to wager this is among Waits’ longest albums to date. Fortunately that’s because there is a lot of good to great material. Particularly, there is a lot of rather conventional material – for Waits – which makes the record sound a little more traditional than his albums often sound. Waits has included these more traditional songs since his drastic change in sound, but I’m not sure he’s ever included this many of them on a single record before.

Of course, much of that is just in how Waits chooses to arrange his songs. If he took the more earnest songs here and gave them more “waitsian” arrangements and left the more straightforward arrangements for the snider and odder tracks, I’m not sure the effect would be that different, really. (What if he’s done that and I just can’t tell?)

Anyway, it’s a good set of songs with a nice balance between his softer side and his weirder side.

Read my reviews of music from 1999.

Tom Waits albums from 2002*:

Alice (8/10)

These songs were written in 1992 but not recorded and released until this year.

So expectations were going to be high for something like this; a “lost” album from a theatrical production ten years earlier. No doubt many people came to this expecting the “lost masterpiece” that we almost always associate with the work major artists don’t record / release.

Well it’s not a masterpiece, but the idea that it’s bad, as some recent RYM reviewer’s allege, is equally preposterous.

It’s certainly a major change in tone from the incredible Bone Machine, which was released only a few months after the show this is the soundtrack to premiered. But that shows off Waits’ versatility, if anything, and that’s something he usually doesn’t get credit for.

Also, he explores a few styles not normally associated with his sound – particularly that one cajun number – I can’t really think of anything else like that in his catalogue off the top of my head. Things are still unmistakably Waitsian, but there’s some moderating of his more extreme tendencies.

And maybe that’s why I don’t quite love it. I find that Waits always writes some great songs but then he often has a few that aren’t quite as good, but usually the arrangements are so bonkers that it doesn’t matter. But here, everything is tempered (with a couple of exceptions.) And I find myself wanting perhaps a little stronger selection of songs.

Blood Money (8/10)

This is a solid set of songs with his standard fantastic arrangements which shows off his vocal range perhaps a bit more than most of his records (that I have heard).

I have a sneaking suspicion that he descends once or twice into self-parody, but I love him too much to follow up such a thought.

Read my reviews of 2002 albums.

2004: Real Gone (???)

The lone latter day Waits record I’ve never listened to. Read my reviews of albums released in 2004.

2011: Bad as Me (8/10)

In 2011 I wrote this horrible “review”:

I can’t really think of anything negative to say about this. It certainly lacks the unity or cohesiveness and / or adventurousness of his very best stuff but the songs are pretty strong and the arrangements are outstanding as always.

So, let’s say I need to listen to it again.

Read my reviews of music from 2011.