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.