You know those moments, when you hear a ‘best of’ album, and you immediately think “Uh-oh – I’m going to need to get all of these albums, aren’t I?” They don’t happen very often, but when they do you remember them. For example, about three months ago, I picked up a Tom Waits compilation covering what’s safely referred to as his ‘Jazz’ period, the 1973-1980 section of his career when he was at his most accessible and not quite diving into the deep end of weird. As detailed here, I was already aware of Waits but this was my first serious sampling of his music and I really liked what I heard – not quite enough to have me diving for an album, but enough so that the compilation had plenty of plays on my Ipod. But, of course, there’s a big dividing line in Waits’ career, and it happens on the 1982 Swordfishtrombones, and I wasn’t yet sure if I was up to jumping over that line. So, when last week Fopp had a copy of Beautiful Maladies, a ‘best of’ that covers Waits’ more experimental Island Record years (from 1982 through to 1994) for the princely sum of £3, I decided to take the plunge (along with a copy of Waits album The Black Rider, also for £3) – and the fact that I’ve since picked up Swordfishtrombones and 1992’s Bone Machine, and I would have grabbed Rain Dogs as well if it was there should tell you how much I liked what I heard.
It’s one of those experiences where you end up wondering what the hell took you so long, as Waits’ bizarre experimentalism is exactly my kind of crazy. He stretches the idea of a ‘difficult listen’ even more here than he ever did during the ‘Used Songs’ compilation, and if anything really sold me, it’s the tracks from 1985’s Rain Dogs – the sinister prowling rythmns of ‘Clap Hands’, the oddball funk of ‘Jockey Full of Bourbon’, and above everything else there’s the absolutely bloody demented ‘Singapore’, a crazed sea-shanty that – for reasons I find impossible to describe – keeps making me think of a really menacing version of King Louie from The Jungle Book singing about going on shore leave and yelling ‘Heave Away, boys!’ I’ve always loved music that doesn’t just burble along in the background but actually takes you on a journey, that builds a world and shifts your perspective in odd angles, and that’s the absolute definition of what Waits does here. There are also some of the most gorgeously crafted lyrics I’ve ever heard, lines that leap out of the song and into your consciousness, resonating in really strange ways, while what he does with percussion and orchestration frankly boggles the mind. There are ‘normal’ tracks on Beautiful Maladies, but it’s the weirder outings that really stick in the mind, or the complete about-turns into quiet soulfulness, like the distant gramphone sounds of ‘Innocent When You Dream (78)’, or the perfectly crafted ‘Johnsburg, Illinois’, which manages to do a wonderful love song in one minute and thirty three seconds.
I’ve been mainly sticking with the compilation so far, I have to admit, and am slowly exploring the albums – The Black Rider is particularly strange (but then, you read the liner notes which tell you it’s from a play co-written by William Burroughs and suddenly everything makes sense), but I’m loving what I hear, and for every track that makes me go ‘huh?’, there’s one that inspires me, intrigues me or just plain enchants me. I may not get hold of Waits’ entire back catalogue, but something tells me I’m not done yet. I can fully understand why Waits inspires the kind of dedication that he does, and there’s a freshness to the music on Beautiful Maladies that’s amazing, along with a tinge of familiarity that suggests exactly how many times he’s been ripped off by other artists. These are the kind of songs that speak to you, that mean more than just verse chorus verse, chorus instrumental chorus fade. They’re srange and creepy, weird and sexy, taking you on a bizarre, carnival-like tour of apocalyptic junkyards, broken down souls and how the world looks through the bottom of a whisky glass. I’m just slightly vexxed at myself that I took this long to get into the Kingdom of Waits. And to sum up, here’s music journo Gary Mulholland talking about Swordfishtrombones in his excellent book ‘Fear of Music – The 261 Greatest Albums Since Punk and Disco’:
“There are fifteen songs here that shoot by in under forty two minutes, in an ugly-beautiful blur of untehered textures and linguistic coups that made Waits the most respected composer of his age, and the writer of novelistic mystery plays that mean something different to everyone who falls under their spell. For me, it’s hungry hobos performing threepenny ballet to the strains of a Salvation Army Band giving a recital in the rubble of a broken town with no station and a surplus of pungent mongrels. I didn’t know I wanted to visit until Tom took me there.”