The Words We Use When We Talk About Tom Waits


There’s no reason for me to review the new Tom Waits record. It would be like handing my 4-year-old son a crayon and asking him to explain photography. I’ve grappled in this space before about the futile pursuit of “writing about music,” but Waits is one of those masters who sucks people into writing diatribes about rock artistry, junkyard poetry, and the history of American music while at the same time inspiring scores of the rest of us to just put our pens down and listen.

Tom Waits, and attempting to pinpoint or even describe whatever “Tom Waits Music” might be, is a bit like that old quote about defining the legal threshold of pornography: “I know it when I see it.” And we all know Waits when we hear him. One of the better descriptions was when Elton John called Waits “the Jackson Pollock of song.” And I also agree with one reviewer’s assessment of Waits as “more of a mad mechanic than a painter to me: a man collecting rusty old wrecks of vintage American music and getting them to clatter-bang back to life — untaxed, uninsured and possibly with a corpse left rotting in the boot.”

As for my only stab at a description of Waits and his music. I think of him as the musical equivalent to the possibly crazy eccentric guy in the song “What’s He Building In There?” from 1999’s Mule Variations. All these years he’s been clanging around that house, banging on pianos and knocking over bottles while I’ve been busy listening to everyone else’s records but also wondering about that Tom Waits guy. What’s he building in there?

I’m not qualified to really break down Tom Waits and provide some semblance of an attempt at a professional critique, in the sense that I’ve only ever heard a few of his records. I’ve always known and respected Tom Waits, he was someone who I’ve always wanted to like. And somewhere I still have the cassette copy of swordfishtrombones that a friend made for me years ago. But beyond that I don’t own any of his records, I can’t honestly say that I’m at all familiar with his whole body of work but I certainly know what he sounds like.

That’s why, instead of “reviewing” his great new album, Bad As Me, and in the process banging out a mini-Wiki regurgitation of his career, I thought I’d throw a bunch of other proper reviews into a word cloud and see if all those Waitsian adjectives and imagery would come bursting out. You know, like “boozy” or “growl” and variations of carnival barkers and closing-time balladry. Possibly some smoke. I mean, those are the words we use when we talk about Tom Waits because his inimitable vocal stylings bring to life such a litany of real characters’ characters.

Interestingly enough, the word cloud (consisting of more than 10,000 words taken from recently published reviews) is a bit short on the old weird American saloon imagery I’d expected. But it turned out pretty cool. Words like new and Bad were prominent as every review of course mentioned that Bad As Me was the new record [we threw out the word “Waits”].

Pretty neat to look through the cloud, a bit like combing through one of Waits albums, where little vignettes are splattered across the page and phrases reveal themselves depending on how you look at them.

Prominent guests like Keith Richards and Waits’ wife/collaborator Kathleen Brennan show up. Funny that “Richards” appears near the words “time” and “years” and “guitars” (and Kathleen is near “love”). The word “great” is surrounded by “percussion,” “horns,” “writing,” “rock,” and “voice.” You see “record,” then “business” and “hell.” There’s “soldiers” next to “lost,” while “Chicago,” “blues,” and “sounds” anchor the middle.

After all these years of me wishing I was “into Tom Waits” for some reason, always wondering what he was building, but never taking the time to listen… he emerges with this fantastic new record that, to my novice ears, sounds like a great sampling of all the things he does best.

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