PopMatters is moving to WordPress. We will publish a few essays daily while we develop the new site. We hope the beta will be up sometime late next week.
Books

Swordfishtrombones (33 1/3) by David Smay

Rather than trying to explain the album as a whole, Smay roots through the details to find dubious truths about the man, not the artist.


Swordfishtrombones (33 1/3)

Publisher: Continuum
ISBN: 0826427820
Author: David Smay
Price: $10.95
Length: 129
Formats: Paperback
US publication date: 2007-12
Amazon

To come at Swordfishtrombones with the notion of explaining it is a fool's task. Its parts are incongruous, its mad hatter composer evasive and coy, its sounds as harsh as they are beautiful. Lyrically it is full of the macabre and grotesque, butted up alongside the quotidian and the beautiful. Tom Waits' brilliant Swordfishtrombones is an album that employs an inexplicable sort of alchemy that, if reverse, wouldn't yield pure and wholly separate parts. So to try and deconstruct it in any complete way just won't work.

Lucky for David Smay, and readers of this book, he's smarter than that. Smay has no interest or intention in explaining to us exactly what Swordfishtrombones is all about.He has no answers for us. If we're looking to strip away mystery, then we've got the wrong book -- and we probably shouldn't be listening to the album to begin with.

Instead of bashing his head up against the album as a whole, Smay examines its parts and mines the details to offer a fresh perspective on the album. By putting the album in a historical context -- he explains the state of Waits' floundering career around the time the album was made -- Smay uses Waits, and his notoriously difficult album, to discuss the idea of confessional art. Of course, anyone who knows and loves Waits' work would naturally dismiss this notion. Surely, Waits has never sailed to Singapore with a one-armed dwarf. Or starved in the belly of a whale. But that is not the sort of confession Smay is writing about here. Instead, he examines a more incomplete, uneven sort of confession. Where small details don't match up with his life so much as they run alongside facts about Tom Waits that may or may not be true.

Does that sound confessional? Well, no, not in the traditional sense. But, as Smay makes clear, what about Tom Waits. and his work, is traditional? And while Smay's slightly-off aligning of elements of life with elements of the album is full of holes, it is tied down by a clear timeline, not only of the album's creation, but of Waits' life.

Most notably, Smay discusses Waits' relationship with collaborator and wife Kathleen Brennan. They had met not long before Swordfishtrombones, and this was the first album they really worked on together. By charting the trajectory of Tom's career, both before and after he met Kathleen, and examining the way his use of imagery shifts -- in particular, Smay writes about Waits' shifting focus from scarecrows to crows -- we begin to see for ourselves the impact Kathleen Brennan had on Tom Waits as not only a wife, but also a powerful muse.

But, in the same way the album is labyrinthine, Smay's book weaves several loose and frayed threads at once. It is a story about the move from Tom Waits the troubadour to Tom Waits the avant-garde musical circus hawker. It is about the chunky stew of influences Waits absorbed, some -- like the No Wave movement in 1980 New York -- we haven't heard much about before. It is also about how Tom Waits is constantly lying to us, and somehow being truthful at the same time. Smay, like Waits, often allows himself to indulge in extended metaphors and symbol-heavy tales with the artist as their weary hero.

It all comes together to show not what Swordfishtrombones is, but more what it can do. Smay can hardly contain himself on the page, and he lets his ideas run wild, giving us a mosaic of a Tom Waits that we haven't quite seen before. Where Kathleen was Tom's muse for the album, the album is Smay's muse to discuss the idea of inevitable confession. That sometimes, no matter how art tries to break from representation, it still stands for something. And while it's hard to guess what that something is on Swordfishtrombones, Smay acts as a side-mouth talking tour guide leading us through the darkness, giving us flashlights so we can illuminate the parts to love the whole we never quite see.

7

Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology and hosting provider that we have less than a month, until November 6, to move PopMatters off their service or we will be shut down. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to save the site.


Music

Books

Film

Recent
Music

Laura Veirs Talks to Herself on 'My Echo'

The thematic connections between these 10 Laura Veirs songs and our current situation are somewhat coincidental, or maybe just the result of kismet or karmic or something in the zeitgeist.

Film

15 Classic Horror Films That Just Won't Die

Those lucky enough to be warped by these 15 classic horror films, now available on Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection and Kino Lorber, never got over them.

Music

Sixteen Years Later Wayne Payne Follows Up His Debut

Waylon Payne details a journey from addiction to redemption on Blue Eyes, The Harlot, The Queer, The Pusher & Me, his first album since his 2004 debut.

Music

Every Song on the Phoenix Foundation's 'Friend Ship' Is a Stand-Out

Friend Ship is the Phoenix Foundation's most personal work and also their most engaging since their 2010 classic, Buffalo.

Music

Kevin Morby Gets Back to Basics on 'Sundowner'

On Sundowner, Kevin Morby sings of valleys, broken stars, pale nights, and the midwestern American sun. Most of the time, he's alone with his guitar and a haunting mellotron.

Music

Lydia Loveless Creates Her Most Personal Album with 'Daughter'

Given the turmoil of the era, you might expect Lydia Loveless to lean into the anger, amplifying the electric guitar side of her cowpunk. Instead, she created a personal record with a full range of moods, still full of her typical wit.

Music

Flowers for Hermes: An Interview with Performing Activist André De Shields

From creating the title role in The Wiz to winning an Emmy for Ain't Misbehavin', André De Shields reflects on his roles in more than four decades of iconic musicals, including the GRAMMY and Tony Award-winning Hadestown.

Film

The 13 Greatest Horror Directors of All Time

In honor of Halloween, here are 13 fascinating fright mavens who've made scary movies that much more meaningful.

Music

British Jazz and Soul Artists Interpret the Classics on '​Blue Note Re:imagined'

Blue Note Re:imagined provides an entrance for new audiences to hear what's going on in British jazz today as well as to go back to the past and enjoy old glories.

Film

Bill Murray and Rashida Jones Add Another Shot to 'On the Rocks'

Sofia Coppola's domestic malaise comedy On the Rocks doesn't drown in its sorrows -- it simply pours another round, to which we raise our glass.

Music

​Patrick Cowley Remade Funk and Disco on 'Some Funkettes'

Patrick Cowley's Some Funkettes sports instrumental renditions from between 1975-1977 of songs previously made popular by Donna Summer, Herbie Hancock, the Temptations, and others.

Music

The Top 10 Definitive Breakup Albums

When you feel bombarded with overpriced consumerism disguised as love, here are ten albums that look at love's hangover.

Music

Dustin Laurenzi's Natural Language Digs Deep Into the Jazz Quartet Format with 'A Time and a Place'

Restless tenor saxophonist Dustin Laurenzi runs his four-piece combo through some thrilling jazz excursions on a fascinating new album, A Time and a Place.

Television

How 'Watchmen' and 'The Boys' Deconstruct American Fascism

Superhero media has a history of critiquing the dark side of power, hero worship, and vigilantism, but none have done so as radically as Watchmen and The Boys.

Music

Floodlights' 'From a View' Is Classicist Antipodal Indie Guitar Pop

Aussie indie rockers, Floodlights' debut From a View is a very cleanly, crisply-produced and mixed collection of shambolic, do-it-yourself indie guitar music.

Music

CF Watkins Embraces a Cool, Sophisticated Twang on 'Babygirl'

CF Watkins has pulled off the unique trick of creating an album that is imbued with the warmth of the American South as well as the urban sophistication of New York.

Music

Helena Deland Suggests Imagination Is More Rewarding Than Reality on 'Something New'

Canadian singer-songwriter Helena Deland's first full-length release Someone New reveals her considerable creative talents.

Music

While the Sun Shines: An Interview with Composer Joe Wong

Joe Wong, the composer behind Netflix's Russian Doll and Master of None, articulates personal grief and grappling with artistic fulfillment into a sweeping debut album.


Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.