Swordfishtrombones (2023 Remaster)

Swordfishtrombones (2023 Remaster)

Tom Waits switched his rusty gears on his eighth album, 1983’s Swordfishtrombones, reinventing himself as rock music’s surrealist carnival barker—a growling spinner of tall tales over all manner of clattering percussion. Waits had spent 10 years and seven albums as a celebrated poet of piano benches, barstools, and diner booths, playing late-night weepers about folks nursing the titular “Bad Liver and a Broken Heart.” But having become transfixed by the eclectic tastes of his new wife Kathleen Brennan, Waits fell for a series of new sounds: the broken blues of Captain Beefheart; the homemade percussion of composer Harry Partch; the noir moods of tango; the theatrical flair of cabaret. The result is Swordfishtrombones, a menagerie of madness featuring 15 tracks that almost function as short films, featuring tales of soldiers returning from war and men driven to insanity by the American suburbs. Swordfishtrombones traffics in atmosphere as much as it does emotion, its vivid characters rendered not only through Waits’ lyrics, but through an eclectic mix of pounds, squeaks, and scrapes that Waits described as an “organized automobile accident.” “Shore Leave,” a talking blues song about a sailor wandering through a raining Hong Kong, comes to life through clanking bass marimba, scraping chairs, and rice on a bass drum. The desolate “Town With No Cheer”—inspired by an article about a town in Australia that closed its only bar—gets its uniquely dusty and dismal feel from bagpipes and synthesizer. And “16 Shells From a Thirty-Ought-Six” evokes chain gangs from its clanging brake drum. Though familiar characters move in and out between songs, Swordfishtrombones refuses to stay in one place. It’s a restless, mysterious album, a vibe captured on the opening track, “Underground,” which Waits once described as “the theme for some late-night activity in the steam tunnels beneath New York City, where allegedly there are entire communities of ladies and gentlemen living under difficult circumstances beneath the subways.” Elsewhere on Swordfishtrombones, “Dave the Butcher” sounds like a circus pooting into town on a rotten calliope; “In the Neighborhood” is like a local marching band making their way to the funeral home; and “Gin Soaked Boy” is a warped blues stomper, with Waits’ entire band performing to one microphone, as contact mics pick up the hum of the room. Swordfishtrombones introduced a wild new style that Waits would continue to tinker with for decades—a sound that would mutate and infect the splintered art-rock of PJ Harvey, the carnival punk of Man Man, the raconteur storytelling of Primus, the dark cabaret of The Dresden Dolls—and much more.

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