Tom Waits Swordfishtrombones

Everything’s a Dollar in This Box: Tom Waits’ ‘Swordfishtrombones’ at 40

Tom Waits’ 1983 album Swordfishtrombones signified a seismic shift in the singer-songwriter’s sound. His music would never be the same again.

Tom Waits
1 September 1983

Tom Waits has always been happily out of step. Throughout the 1970s, his vaudevillian, piano-based songwriting was often in direct contrast to that decade’s bombastic forays into prog, disco, and riff-replete classic rock. His more sophisticated musical persona – sort of a Beatnik take on Randy Newman – nevertheless gained him critical raves and a cult following. In 1983, his album Swordfishtrombones moved his sound into a completely new direction, but one that still managed to distance himself from the then-burgeoning sounds of new wave, synth-heavy pop, and pastel fashion cues.

Swordfishtrombones, which turned 40 on 1 September, was the direct sonic result of the influence of his partner, Kathleen Brennan, who introduced Waits to the sounds of the outsider blues hollering of Captain Beefheart. Additionally, he became interested in implementing the sounds and concepts of experimental artist Harry Partch. These sonically rich influences, light years away from Waits’ first single, “Ol’ 55”, gave him a new direction for his music. While Waits has returned to the well that inspired his earlier work and has occasionally moved on to even weirder, noisier sonic palettes, Swordfishtrombones is the reset that changed everything.

This odd swerve into different musical lanes may have put off his older fans, but it gained him scores of new ones and put him squarely into the crosshairs of the experimental art crowd. It also, strangely, signified his newfound marital bliss. “My life was getting more settled,” Waits recalled in an interview. “I was staying out of bars. But my work was becoming more scary.”

This sober focus probably has much to do with Swordfishtrombones’ artistic success. For all its wobbly charm and zig-zagging motifs, this fantastic album rarely missteps. This new sound comes straight from the gate, frontloaded with the stomping opening track, “Underground”. Aided by the pounding drum beat of Stephen Hodges and Fred Tackett’s piercing, atonal electric guitar (a common theme in Waits’ future albums, later fulfilled by guitarist Marc Ribot), Waits positively hollers the words like an insane carnival barker: “There’s a big, dark town / It’s a place I’ve found / There’s a world going on / Underground.” A fitting introduction to this strange new musical world.

Waits’ songs are often beautifully told short stories and novellas to be savored again and again. Tracks like “Shore Leave” set a scene better than almost any songwriter could hope to do. The lyrics, matched with a deeply atmospheric musical landscape, create a world the listener can easily imagine. With spoken word verses, Waits conjures up the tale of a sailor on leave, a stranger in a strange land (“With a big fat paycheck strapped to my hip sack”), and the minor mischief that follows. Every line is pure gold: “I had a cold one at the Dragon / And some Filipino floor show / And talked baseball with a lieutenant over a Singapore Sling.” But as intoxicating as these pleasures may seem, the narrator still misses the small-town domestic bliss that awaits him thousands of miles away: “I wondered how this same moon outside over this Chinatown fair / Could look down on Illinois and find you there.”

This section of “Shore Leave” hints at some of the thematic threads that hold these songs together. Illinois is revisited in the brief, eloquent piano ballad, “Johnsburg, Illinois”, which not only indicates Waits hasn’t completely abandoned his jazzy troubadour persona but also serves as a love letter to Brennan (who was raised in Johnsburg). “She’s my only true love,” Waits croons, “She’s all that I think of / Look here, in my wallet / That’s her.” You can easily picture the character from “Shore Leave” showing his wallet photo to his new baseball-loving lieutenant friend. The military motif is revived again in “Solider’s Things”, a gentle, ragged ballad that lists random things found in an old container: “A tinker, a tailor / A soldier’s things / His rifle, his boots full of rocks / Oh and this one’s for bravery / And this one is for me / And everything’s a dollar in this box.”

Rarely has unvarnished, pure sentimentality lived so harmoniously with weirder, more experimental musical excursions. The spoken word “Frank’s Wild Years” is equal parts hilarious and horrifying, pairing staid domesticity with abuse and arson over a jazzy, finger-snapping musical backing. The odd, carnival-like instrumental “Dave the Butcher” (led with stabbing organ notes, played by Waits himself) provides a frightening horror show atmosphere.

By the same token, the spooky “Town with No Cheer” is unsettling but much more subdued, with scores of disparate instruments coming together to provide a unique sonic experience. Opening with a clanging bell and ominous bagpipes, the main section of the song is led by the odd combination of harmonium and synthesizer, as Waits’ lyrics spin a desperate, gothic setting: “Now it’s boiling in a miserable March 21st / Wrapped the hills in a blanket of Patterson’s Curse / The train smokes down the xylophone, there’ll be no stopping here / All you can be is thirsty in a town with no cheer.”

But Waits is an eclectic, multitalented storyteller, and he pivots easily from a town with no cheer to the less mystical setting of a real town with relatable qualities: “In the Neighborhood” marries a parade-style brass band to a sentimental ode to life in what could be a street in Los Angeles, Brooklyn… or Johnsburg. “There’s a couple Filipino girls gigglin’ by the church / And the window is busted / And the landlord ain’t home / And Butch joined the Army / Yeah, that’s where he’s been / And the jackhammer’s digging up the sidewalks again.”

Perhaps as a direct result of Waits’ appreciation of Beefheart, as well as obvious influences like Howlin’ Wolf, Swordfishtrombones contains plenty of examples of straightforward blues stompers, executed in a no-frills manner that flies in the face of whatever was in heavy rotation on MTV at the time. “16 Shells From a 30.6” barrels along relentlessly with the aid of Larry Taylor’s acoustic bass, Hodges’ thumping drums, the rattling, insistent percussion of Victor Feldman, and Joe Romano’s sustained trombone lines. “Down, Down, Down” is a lightning-fast blues run with Eric Bikales’ Hammond organ solo doing a terrific Jimmy Smith impersonation. “Gin Soaked Boy” is a sleazy Howlin’ Wolf tribute with some typically deft guitar work from Tackett.

Swordfishtrombones closes with one of the most musically moving songs Waits ever wrote or recorded: “Rainbirds” (the title hinting at his next solo album, Rain Dogs) begins with a brief trio of glass harmonicas, followed by three minutes of breathtaking instrumental interplay between Waits on piano and Greg Cohen on bass. It straddles lines between jazz and classical, acting almost as a palate cleanser that follows the bluesy shouts and clattering noise that preceded it. Leave it to Waits to wrap up an earth-shattering and unsettling album with something that sounds like a long-lost Erik Satie composition.

Contrary to popular opinion, Waits didn’t completely shut the door on the stylings of his previous albums with Swordfishtrombones. You could even say that he began toying with this new style on earlier records (“‘Til the Money Runs Out”, from his 1980 album Heartattack and Vine, certainly hints at this new direction). But he turned a corner with Swordfishtrombones, and its fingerprints are all over subsequent LPs, particularly Rain Dogs.

While it’s unclear whether or not the 73-year-old Waits has any new music on the horizon – his last album, Bad as Me, came out in 2011 – five of his albums released by Island Records in the 1980s and 1990s are being reissued with fresh remasters. Swordfishtrombones, Rain Dogs (1985), and Franks Wild Years (1987) were reissued on vinyl, CD, and streaming platforms on 1 September, and Bone Machine (1992) and The Black Rider (1993) will get the same treatment on 6 October. This would indicate that it’s a great time to discover (or rediscover) this fascinating discography. Still, there’s never a wrong time to pick up a Tom Waits album and get caught up in his weird, intriguing, mysterious world.