There are many great lines from 'Pulp Fiction.' Every time I see the movie, I latch unto one quote or another. It's a movie where the visual action captures the imagination just as much as the dialogue. On the last viewing, the line "I'm an American honey, our names don't mean s%^&" caught my interest. Most American bands really have this same unpretentious attitude toward their music even if they perform under high falutin' names. American rock bands of the same era as that film, like Guided By Voices, showed us that being almost accidentally great is better than British rock bands striving for and demanding praise but falling far short of actual greatness. You know, like Oasis.
Tom Waits embodies the American artist for me, because you get the distinct impression that even when he's making serious 'art' he still has a sense of humor about it. He also isn't affected by trends in music. I personally think the 1980s was the worst decade of music so far because I can't stand how albums from that era sound. The ultra-slick, clinical, plasticky, and synthetic sound of it all. The way bass and drums don't sound right. But Swordfishtrombones has a unique, timeless aesthetic, just as Waits's other albums afterward owe no obvious debt to any genre or trend. Furthermore, 'Pretentious' is one of the last words I would associate with the man. If you sat down and talked to Tom Waits about his songcraft or his approach to his art, I imagine he would just shrug and say he's an entertainer like any other trying to make a buck while recording the kind of music he wants to.
However, it's easy to fall into the trap of romanticizing such artists. Swordfishtrombones has some interesting stories behind its creation, and sits at the tipping point of Tom Waits's career between his earlier late-night jazz club, alcohol soaked singer/songwriter albums and his later lucid junkyard, Captain Beefheart-inspired excursions. But the best way to approach the album is to experience it without context. To go back to the Captain Beefheart thread and tug until its loose, the first time I listened to Trout Mask Replica I didn't know anything about it, other than that my friend said it was a legendarily weird and 'out there' album. It's rare that I hear an album which shocks me so utterly I have no way of describing it. And we all know that a critic's worst fear is to be unable to make easy, lazy comparisons to other music. Whoops...forget you read that.
The thing that really strikes me about Swordfishtrombones is how play-like it is. Not play-like as in childish and fun, but as in "like a stage play." I know that it was the first of a trilogy of albums that would eventually see Waits writing a musical with his wife called 'Frank's Wild Years', but even without that knowledge the album is incredibly visual and theatrical. There is just something about its spacious production (it's like you can feel the streets and scenes he's singing about), the variety of instrumentation, the stripped down number of instruments used, and the odd sounds on display that create powerful imagery in my head. As with 'Pulp Fiction's visuals and dialogue, Swordfishtrombones's lyrics and music are equally great. So, yeah, I always picture the album playing out on a stage in my head. I don't mean a concert, though; moreso I see Waits on stage with his band members coming on and off as required, with sets and lightning and everything. The three instrumentals give some traveling time or scene changes to the "story" I imagine going on, in particular the hushed curtain fall of 'Rainbirds', a beautiful mostly-solo piano piece.
Swordfishtrombones still fascinates today for two musical reasons. One is, as I said above, the instruments used. Waits employs what you'll so often see referred to as a junkyard orchestra on this album, with all kinds of things that sound like percussion, guitar, bass, etc. but in warped or twisted ways. The marimbas--another idea borrowed from Captain Beefheart, which gave such interesting texture to his Lick My Decals Off, Baby--accordions, harmoniums, and bagpipes give the album a very, very distinctive sound. But unlike many bands who used non-traditional music in a rock context, none of it feels gimmicky or forced. These odd sounds shade and highlight the songs. The second reason Swordfishtrombones captures a listener is Tom Waits's voice. He never was a traditionally 'good' singer on his barroom crooner albums like Small Change, favoring a raspy baritone, but with this album he absolutely sets his voice free, howling and shrieking and contorting along with the characters and songs. Again, a debt is owed to Captain Beefheart here. But whereas Trout Mask Replica sounds like Howlin' Wolf fronting a surrealist rock band that aspires to free jazz from time to time, Swordfishtrombones sounds like an ex-barfly piano man leading an ethnic, European folk music band that aspires to rock music from time to time. How else to describe the angry rant of '16 Shells From A Thirty-Ought-Six', with its percussion seemingly played on baking sheets, steam pipes, pots, and pans while a bassist and guitarist try to be heard over the clangor. Or the majestic march step, brass-band-parade-through-town of 'In The Neighborhood.' Or the B-3 organ smooth jazz spoken word of 'Frank's Wild Years', displaying Waits's personality, humor, and skill with words. Or the smoky piano ballad 'Soldier's Things', which feels to me like a final nod of the hat (with raised drink in hand) to the first phase of his career.
Swordfishtrombones is an album I find impossible to criticize. Rain Dogs is a very similar sequel that I also like immensely, but at 19 songs it drags a bit. No such problems with Swordfishtrombones. It often shows up on 'best of' lists by magazines and websites, and once you're a fan, it's easy to feel the same way.