Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Tom Waits

  • Closing Time [Asylum, 1973] B+
  • The Heart of a Saturday Night [Asylum, 1974] C+
  • Nighthawks at the Diner [Asylum, 1975] B
  • Small Change [Asylum, 1976] B-
  • Foreign Affairs [Asylum, 1977] B
  • Blue Valentine [Asylum, 1978] B
  • Heartattack and Vine [Asylum, 1980] B
  • Swordfishtrombones [Island, 1983] A-
  • Rain Dogs [Island, 1985] B+
  • Franks Wild Years [Island, 1987] B
  • Big Time [Island, 1988] B
  • The Early Years [Rhino, 1991] Neither
  • Bone Machine [Island, 1992] **
  • The Black Rider [Island, 1993] ***
  • Beautiful Maladies: The Island Years [Island, 1998] A-
  • Mule Variations [Epitaph, 1999] A-
  • Alice [Anti-, 2002] *
  • Blood Money [Anti-, 2002] A-
  • Real Gone [Anti-, 2004] ***
  • Orphans: Brawlers, Bawlers, and Bastards [Anti-, 2006] A
  • Glitter and Doom Live [Anti-, 2009] *
  • Bad as Me [Anti-, 2011] A-

Consumer Guide Reviews:

Closing Time [Asylum, 1973]
Waits has been around--one of the two songs that make this album is about driving home at dawn in a '55 Chevy, the other about contacting a girlfriend of forty years before. With his jazz-schooled piano and drawling delivery, he resembles Randy Newman more than such fellow inmates as Jackson Browne and David Blue--Newman feigns feelings for the purpose of mocking them, while Waits exploits an honest sentimentality which he undercuts just enough to be credible. He doesn't carry a tune as well as Newman, though, which gets to be an annoyance on side two. B+

The Heart of a Saturday Night [Asylum, 1974]
Last time he was an urban romantic with a good eye who you would have figured for a Ferlinghetti fan if you'd thought about it. This time he begins to sound like a Ferlinghetti imitator, and while nostalgia for past bohemias sure beats nostalgia for past wars, it's still a drain and a drag. I mean, there might be more coverable songs here if maudlin melodies didn't merge with neon imagery in the spindrift dirge of the honky-tonk nicotine night. Dig? C+

Nighthawks at the Diner [Asylum, 1975]
When he really works at evoking the swizzle-stick blues, Waits is so full of shit Port-O-San ought to name a model after him. Fortunately, this one's long on patter--first live double in history where you skip the song to get to the next intro. (And some of the songs are worth going back to.) B

Small Change [Asylum, 1976]
Waits has developed into such a horrible singer that sometimes I think his stentorian emotionalism is deliberate, like the clinkers he hits in "The Piano Has Been Drinking." This doesn't affect his monologue songs one way or the other, but it tends to detract from those with melodies. B-

Foreign Affairs [Asylum, 1977]
I like the poetry-with-jazz for "Jack & Neal," the mumbled monologue "Barber Shop," the Anglophile "Foreign Affair," and a duet with Bette on "I Never Talk to Strangers." But I get off the trolley at "Potter's Field," a production number for a high-rolling nightstick who crossed "from the Bronx to the River Styx." With his genre sleaze and metaphorical melodrama, Waits is a downwardly mobile escapist who believes that Everyman is a wino and Everywoman an all-night waitress who turns tricks when things get rough. The problem isn't the subjects themselves, but that for all his self-conscious unpretentiousness he inflates them. Which I guess is all we can expect of a schoolteacher's son who's been searching for his own world since he was old enough to think. B

Blue Valentine [Asylum, 1978]
Waits keeps getting weirder and good for him. As sheer sendup, his "Somewhere" beats Sid Vicious's "My Way" his way. But I'm not always sure he understands his gift--these lyrics should be funnier. And "Romeo Is Bleeding," easily my favorite among his Chandleroid sagas of tragedy outside the law, is more effective on the jacket than when he underlines its emotional resonance in song. That's not weird at all. B

Heartattack and Vine [Asylum, 1980]
Lurching from hip to bathetic in his doomed pursuit of the let's-get-wasted market, he needs an editor more than Jack Kerouac ever did. But Kerouac rarely came up with tropes as axiomatic as "I sold a quart of blood and bought a half a pint of Scotch" or "If you don't get my letter, then you'll know that I'm in jail," neither of which ought to spend their lives buried in overgrown verbiage and stentorian second-line. And sometimes he gets away with his shit, as in the tearfully tuneful "Jersey Girl" or the blisteringly bluesy "Mr. Siegal"--or "Heartattack and Vine," which could make you hope he's getting tired of getting wasted. B

Swordfishtrombones [Island, 1983]
Though it never seemed likely that Waits had the intellect or self-discipline his talent deserved, after a full decade of half-cocked color he's put it together. He'll never sing pretty, but finally that's an unmitigated advantage. Taking a cue from his country cousin Captain Beefheart, he's making the music as singular as the stories, from the amplified Delta blues of "Gin Soaked Boy" to Victor Feldman's strange percussion devices (try the brake drum on "16 Shells From a 30-6"). And at the same time he's finding the tawdry naturalistic details he craves in less overtly bizarre locales--Australia, suburbia, his own head. A-

Rain Dogs [Island, 1985]
By pigging out on a nineteen-track LP that goes on for fifty-four minutes without a bad cut, Waits demonstrates how fully he's outgrown the bleary self-indulgences--booze, bathos, beatnikism--that bogged down his '70s. He's in control of his excesses now, and although his backing musicians shift constantly, he's worked out a unique and identifiable lounge-lizard sound that suits his status as the poet of America's non-nine-to-fivers. But the sheer bulk of the thing does get wearing--it never peaks. I wish he'd figured out a way to throw "Union Square," "Cemetery Polka," and "Clap Hands" into sharper relief. And realize that those might not even be his high points, or yours. B+

Franks Wild Years [Island, 1987]
Amid these fragments from a musical that wouldn't make all that much sense fully staged, you'll find five-six songs that stand on their own--couple howlin' blues, coupla tuneful heart-tuggers, coupla Wayne Newton parodies. But if in the '20s Rudy Vallee sang through a megaphone because he wanted to sound modern, in the '80s Waits sings through a megaphone because he wants to sound old. This being the '80s, you're free to prefer Waits--as long as you don't kid yourself too much about his conceptual thrust. B

Big Time [Island, 1988]
Sure he's an American original and all that. But from half-assed one-man original-cast album to soundtrack of filmed live show, Waits continues to confound the categories more aimlessly than seems necessary. Not counting one shaggy testicle story, the sharpest moments here subject overlooked songs to a crack cabaret-tinged band. From American originals I expect bigger surprises. B

The Early Years [Rhino, 1991] Neither

Bone Machine [Island, 1992]
ace arranger in thrall to fourflushing singer-songwriter ("Goin' Out West," "All Stripped Down," "I Don't Wanna Grow Up") **

The Black Rider [Island, 1993]
prime collaborators, could use a libretto ("Russian Dance," "Crossroads," "That's the Way," "I'll Shoot the Moon") ***

Beautiful Maladies: The Island Years [Island, 1998]
Whereas my favorite moments on Waits's many inconsistent albums--the pop parody-throwaway "I'll Shoot the Moon," the rawly elegant "All Stripped Down"--avoid the American grotesquerie he's overrated for, these 23 self-selections do not. As your designated bean counter I note that 10 of them come from Swordfishtrombones and Rain Dogs, which hold up as totalities. Yet even when I program around those 10, this also holds up as a totality, persuading me that the main reason Waits is overrated is that he's never given up on himself. Over more years than most reprobates have in them he's covered more ground than most boho-lowlife shtick has room for--in a cockeyed, wildly varied body of songs that find form in a music nobody dares call lounge-rock because Kurt Weill and Leadbelly will come back and feed them to the fishes if they do. This is a sound with no interest whatsoever in glamour, even as something to make fun of. When it meshes, who can niggle about the literary and vocal affectations of such a hell of a bandleader? A-

Mule Variations [Epitaph, 1999]
Between 1985 and 1993 Waits managed to seem prolific while generating exactly one album that wasn't tied to a film or theater piece. Between 1993 and 1998 he managed to remain mythic while generating occasional occasional songs and a rumor that he'd split with his wife. So it's a pleasure to report that his best record since Swordfishtrombones has Ms. Kathleen Brennan all over it, which he's proud to testify is why it's also his kindest record ever: "She puts the heart into all the things. She's my true love." Together they humanize the percussion-battered Bone Machine sound, reconstituting his '80s alienation effects into a Delta harshness with more give to it--enough to accommodate a tenderness that's never soft. Sure "Eyeball Kid" is a sick joke about a freak show; sure "Big in Japan" is a send-up about a failure. But by the blues-drenched reconciliation hymn "Come On Up to the House," he knows how lucky he is: "Come down off the cross/We can use the wood/Come on up to the house." A-

Alice [Anti-, 2002]
See: Effective but Defective. *

Blood Money [Anti-, 2002]
See: Effective but Defective. A-

Real Gone [Anti-, 2004]
Shtick fights funk to the death, yielding both a circus spiel with some laughs in it and a battlefield habanera worthy of Motörhead ("Hoist That Rag," "Top of the Hill"). ***

Orphans: Brawlers, Bawlers, and Bastards [Anti-, 2006]
Having creamed for these 56 songs old, new and nobody's talking, I returned with trepidation. Sure enough, the first time through, too many had faded on me. Soon, however, even ones I'd given up on were bum-rushing my earhole, like "Lucinda," with its steel-driving beat and gallows gloom. One reason, close attention to 1988's "Sea of Love" suggests, is that his groan has grown more distinct. And though it would be mere rhetoric to claim the six spoken-word pieces on Disc 3 are really music--they're yarns, jokes, theater, that's the point--they do really sound good. I said sound. A

Glitter and Doom Live [Anti-, 2009]
The monologue disc needs track divisions and the songs aren't improved by his bellow-and-groan, but in concert Waits generates a groove even with his son manning the kit ("Get Behind the Mule," "Goin' Out West"). *

Bad as Me [Anti-, 2011]
The three strongest tracks on Waits's most rocking album ever all feature not just Keith Richards but Tom's drummer son Casey--Richards alone doesn't rock as hard. Not to equate Casey Waits with Charlie Watts. But since "Chicago" invokes the Great Migration and "Satisfied" namechecks Mick Jagger himself, I believe the grooves on this album are thematic. Of course, the themes are thematic too. The carpet-bombing "Hell Broke Luce" and the one about bailing out millionaires while the rest of us murk around in the mud are low-life chronicles for a time when it would be stupid to ignore the historical connection between low-life and poverty per se. A-

See Also