I can’t believe there are too many music lovers out there who aren’t already familiar with Tom Waits’ masterpiece Swordfishtrombones, released on 1st September 40 years ago, but if you’re lucky enough to be able to listen to it for the first time, I strongly recommend you do just that.
For me, it’s the genius work of one of the most interesting and influential musical artists of the late Twentieth Century, which was not exactly a barren epoch in music history. As perhaps the pivotal part of the unofficial trilogy of Waits’ classic albums, alongside Rain Dogs and Frank’s Wild Years, it is often credited with transforming not just Waits’ own career but the trajectory of popular music and song writing in the 1980s. It was one of those albums that seemed to connect the past to the present, while sending it all hurling towards an exciting and unpredictable future.
Lyrically it is astonishing. As Waits’ continues to mine the romanticism of his earlier albums, on Swordfishtrombones he marries this with something that sounds very new and challenging, a focus on the simplicity and commonplace of every-day life. There is also a real sense that the characters who inhabit Waits’ songs live out their lives in the material, tangible world, where all their fantastical-humdrum stories play out in the context of the communities and immediate environments of which they are a part.
Musically, he tore up the book, inventing a new language for popular song with his utilisation of traditional instruments alongside a collection of industrial and household objects reclaimed into a “junk yard orchestra”.
The whole thing provides a beautiful palette for Waits’ extraordinary voice and vocal delivery – at once passionate and full of intent – while always teetering on the outside edge of crazed.
Swordfishtrombones encouraged other artists to be explorers; it set them free and nothing was ever going to be the same again…
The remasters of Tom Waits’ magnificent trilogy of Swordfishtrombones, Rain Dogs and Frank’s Wild Years is out now on CD and streaming in all the usual places. Vinyl versions are scheduled for release on 22 September 2023.