Review: Tom Waits’ Gives Essential Island Albums a Long Overdue Overhaul

Tom Waits
Swordfishtrombones
Rain Dogs
Franks Wild Years
Bone Machine
The Black Rider

Videos by American Songwriter

Remastered reissues
(Island/UME)
All 4-5 stars

“No, thanks” might not have been the exact words executives at Elektra/Asylum, Tom Waits’ original label, communicated to their “prestige” artist when declining to release Swordfishtrombones (1983) project. But the message was clear; this was too far outside of even the amorphous, non-commercial boundaries Waits had established on his initial seven titles, circa 1973-’80, for the imprint.

It didn’t take any convincing though for Island Records’ president Chris Blackwell to welcome Waits and his radical new direction to his company. What followed were four additional studio recordings for the label (along with a smattering of soundtracks and a live set) that many consider the zenith of Waits’ still-evolving career.

Meeting, then marrying, scriptwriter Kathleen Brennan is often cited as a key ingredient in Waits’ evolution from the low-down, whiskey/razor blade voiced, jazz/blues, boho hipster bystander he had cultivated in his previous work to a huffing/puffing/growling carnival-barking observer of life’s oddballs and losers. That was underpinned and amplified with clattering percussion, the rattling of homemade instruments, and noir, often eerie backing he gravitated to for the majority of music recorded during the next decade. Oh, and there are some delicate, heartbreaking ballads (“Jersey Girl,” reportedly written about Brennan), dark gospel (“Way Down in the Hole”), and country songs (“Blind Love”) too.   

The tracks packed into long single albums Swordfishtrombones, Rain Dogs (1985), and Franks Wild Years (1987) completed a trilogy of sorts that pushed Waits into a distinctive sonic tableau that included such unlikely comrades as Keith Richards (on Rain Dogs), avant-jazz guitarist Marc Ribot and roots rocking Los Lobos’ David Hildago on accordion. The run ended with the Grammy-winning (for Best Alternative Album) Bone Machine (1992) and The Black Rider (1993), a compilation of edgy and abrasive (even by Waits’ standard) songs written for a “musical fable” with help from William Burroughs. After Blackwell’s exit from Island, Waits continued his intermittent output for the indie Anti-label, where he remains.

Starting in September 2023, Swordfishtrombones’ 40th anniversary, and continuing a month later, Waits and Brennan (sharing producer credits), returned to the “original production master tapes,” reissuing these five studio discs separately (unfortunately 1988s live Big Time, the soundtrack to Waits’ performance film, is not included) with “restored album graphics” (a quote from the attached stickers) on CD and vinyl.

To his credit, Waits has never been concerned with cash-grab opportunities. So it’s little surprise that these are not expanded with demos, live selections, or rarities left to collect dust in Island’s archives just to entice fans to purchase them again. Rather they sound and look better than previous versions which were notoriously plagued by substandard audio and dated artwork.

Waits is such an iconoclastic artist (he once described himself as the “sand in the sandwich”) that these collections, even between thirty and forty years old, still feel fresh, edgy, and like nothing else appeared since. Nobody replicates his gruff vocals without sounding like a copycat (he famously won a multi-million dollar suit against Fritos for a Doritos ad that tried to do just that). And his music, with its unexpected, sometimes blues and free jazz-oriented twists, along with clattering, occasionally Latin or tango-based percussion, is equally as quirky and bespoke.

Those unfamiliar with this period of Waits’ output should start with the remarkable and slightly easier-to-absorb Swordfishtrombones, then pick up the following two while leaving the difficult-to-swallow The Black Rider for last.

The era that started with an ignominious “No, thanks,” ended with a hearty “Yes, more please.”

Photo by Jay Blakesberg / Courtesy Umusic.com

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