Tom Waits’ debut went in a direction he never really revisited. Only “Midnight Lullaby” points to what he would do on his next few albums, though the style is not yet fully formed. People look to “Ol’ 55” as one of his better songs, but I find it a bit ho-hum. It leans a bit too much on the prevailing “California soft rock” fad, which was in full swing at the time. That sort of sums this up. The album doesn’t always play on Waits’ strengths. So it could be said he was still finding his voice. But this album still has some charm. “Old Shoes (& Picture Postcards)” is among my favorite Waits songs — usually my only reason for returning to Closing Time.
While not Tom Waits’ most strikingly original work, his Hollywood beatnik shtick is still quite effective here. There are plenty of faux jazz ballads, a showtune, and a few intimations of his edgier eighties songwriting. He even manages to pull off the maudlin “Kentucky Avenue”. Everything seems more polished and sober than Small Change and most people find it far more inspired than Foreign Affairs. This is one of Waits’ most successful albums of the 1970s. It was also his last effort completely dedicated to this particular old time hipster musical persona. His next albums would start to take a left turn toward rogue carnival weirdness.
Here Waits is still operating within the realm of orchestrated pop balladry (“Saving All My Love for You,” “On the Nickel,” “Ruby’s Arms”), but he’s made a noticeable change in welcoming more harder-edged blues-rock sounds to his palette, with heavier drums and guitar and no piano (“Heartattack and Vine,” “‘Til the Money Runs Out”). This proved to be a transitional album as Waits moved toward his edgier mid-80s sound. But often he is stuck with a slick, “professional”, L.A. kind of sound (“In Shades,” “Downtown”) that is too much of a compromise between the two poles of the album. Even when he does succeed in one firm style or another, it is hard to find people who want to swing between gravelly crooning and gruff R&B the way this album is presented. There is definitely good stuff here, but the sum total is a little unsatisfying. After marrying Kathleen Brennan, whom he met while working on One From the Heart, he basically committed to the style of Swordfishtrombones and stuck with that approach for the rest of his career.
A good album, but one I hardly ever revisit. Of course I dig stuff like “16 Shells From a Thirty-Ought-Six”. You would have to be a major asshole not to. But this album as a whole doesn’t resonate with me like some of his others. Still a fine effort and among Tom Waits’ better ones. This would be his last album for nearly twenty years to look back at all on the lounge jazz/blues that characterized much of his 1970s output.
I’ve never been fully satisfied with The Black Rider. It was created as part of a theater production of the same name that joined Tom Waits with one of the century’s greatest writers (William S. Burroughs) and one of the world’s most respected theater artists (Robert Wilson). There is a weak link though…and it’s Tom Waits! The story (thanks to Burroughs) is a brilliant parable. I have not had the opportunity to see a theater production of the work and judge Wilson’s contributions, but reliable sources have raved about it. So why can’t this album hold up? Well, it has its moments. But too often Waits gets ahead of his compositional abilities, trying too hard to sound like a latter day Kurt Weill or something. Underneath it all, there is still something amazing about this album. Too bad Waits couldn’t pull it together like on Bone Machine.
The Heart of Saturday Night sits — sometimes uncomfortably — between the California soft rock of Tom Waits’ debut and the beatnik barfly music of his later 1970s work. His avant hobo persona was still a long ways off. Waits is ambling in the right direction, but compared to later efforts the performances come across as too uncertain and the songwriting too muddled. In a perplexing way, the worn out and boozy ambiance of Small Change and the theatrical and maudlin touches of Blue Valentine ending up providing the missing ingredients. So while there is hardly anything in particular wrong with this album, Waits has done better.
Fans of Tom Waits’ later work aren’t always on board for his earlier stuff, and vice-versa. Aside from briefly dabbling in soft rock, his early period was primarily marked by boozy bar songs, piano ballads, a sprinkling of orchestrated numbers, and a gentle subversion of traditional pop with an eye toward the seedier side of life. Well, for his early period, Small Change might be the best. It opens with the lush, maudlin “Tom Traubert’s Blues (Four Sheets to the Wind in Copenhagen).” The next song “Step Right Up” showcases the off-kilter songwriting talents on which Waits would increasingly rely. The rest of the album focuses more on piano bar jazz and blues, with borderline incoherent vocals and a fascination with the dark corners of down-and-out society. It all works though, somehow. This is right on the pulse of late-night drunken melancholy. If you played this at an AA meeting you’d probably make some people cry.