The Island Years: the second season of Tom Waits’ musical career

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In 1982, after leaving the Asylum and full of enthusiasm for the new phase of his career, Waits made drastic choices if compared to his recent past, both working on a new image and  a new sound: out the saxophone, which had been present in all the albums published by Asylum, and in instruments such as banjo, marimba, harmonium, calliope, bagpipe, plus a lot of percussions mastered by Victor Feldman. Metal objects, chairs and megaphones were also used as musical instruments, following an aesthetics inspired by Captain Beefheart and by the sound experiments of the eccentric American composer Harry Partch.

Swordfishtrombones‘ songs (1983) were composed,  arranged and produced by Waits. Instead of  ballads accompanied by melancholic string orchestrations, we have brief avant-garde sonic sketches and videos (such as Haskell Wexler’s ‘In the Neighorhood’) which shocked the fans who were fond of Closing Time and The Heart of Saturday Night.

Once completed, the work was offered to Island Records, the company of Chris Blackwell, who immediately fell in love with the project and signed Waits to his label. Critics were ecstatic and, although the record sold poorly in America, Waits kept a straight bar and continued on his new path. Swordfishtrombones was the first album of the so-called “Frank Trilogy”; the other two would be Rain Dogs (1985) and Franks Wild Years (1987), the latter born as a musical based on the character of Frank Leroux a.k.a. O’Brien, played by Waits himself and performed in Chicago in 1986.

Starting with Rain Dogs, Tom began working with The Lounge Lizards’ guitarist Marc Ribot, whose dissonant sound would become from then onwards a landmark of Waits’ musical aesthetics. Tom also incorporated Brecht & Weil’s atmospheres, Tex-Mex, New Orleans Voodoo Music, Country and Funeral March in his new music. Note that Rain Dogs also contains the piece that a couple of years later, thanks to Rod Steward’s cover version, would grant Waits for the first time in his career a mountain of royalties: Downtown Train.

In the studio version of Franks Wild Years, the “pawnshop instruments” were further increased and experimental practices such as making musicians play instruments that they do not usually play (a strategy already implemented by Bowie and Eno in 1979 during the recording of Lodger) were adopted. Funky, rock, rumba and carnival sounds can be heard on the album, along with vocal styles that sometimes remind us of a preacher, other times of Frank Sinatra. After the musical and the album, the Frank Trilogy’s project was completed with a concert film directed by Chris Blum and entitled Big Time (1988), whose soundtrack was published later the same year.

In the following three years, after devoting to cinema both as an actor and as the author of the soundtrack of Jim Jarmusch’s Night on Earth, Waits returned in ’92 with his spookiest album: Bone Machine. The experimentation that had started nine years earlier with Swordfishtrombones found an uncompromising fulfillment in an album as raw and minimalist as magical and estranging. Recorded in a warehouse inside the building that housed the studio, the room where the sounds of Bone Machine were born had nothing to smooth the edges of a series of disharmonious, frightening, and dark tracks, which perfectly matched the meditation on mortality that is the object of the lyrics. 

The result was sublime and the work, although selling poorly as usual, was awarded with the Grammy for the best Alternative album. The following year, after collaborating with theatrical director Robert Wilson on the production of The Black Rider operetta (1993) and the Alice musical, Tom retired almost completely from the music business for five years. Back in 1998, he amicably left Island and settled with Anti-, a label of the independent company Epitaph Records. This marked the end of the second season of Waits’ musical career.

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