Review: Ian Penman, NME, Sep 1983

Now, Before I step before you again to review some music, and then have to face an old familiar tune (videlicet: guilty of obscurantism), I shall insure myself, favour and function, with the briefest exergue. To wit – my capitation, and guarantee: SWORDFISHTROMBONES (ILPS 9762), Tom Waits’ latest work, is the scene of a most uncommon lustre, and should – dear listener, I implore you – be purchased.

Now, I was looking out my window speculating the possibilities of dust what was without glass was most late almost martini dry green grey uniform and about to defoliate but waits now, look who shows up in the same place! So, I kicked out my diaries (two sisters in black that order) hocked my hangover and, as luck would say after a few “how strange the notes string together in sobriety!”

Now and then: SWORDFISHTROMBONES represents Tom Waits. To save the lease, an ex-pirate’s renavigation. To wit: 15 tracks or bands (no details on its sleeve, though) which, speaking as critic – as I can – shatter a certain uniformity that threatened to over homogenise that waits; more especially in the last solo LP proper, ‘Heartattack And Vine’ (Asylum Elektra; fulfilment of said contract?). bar the eponymous opener, a bit of a (s)ham. Then again, take the first few months of 1983 – some of the TOMWAITSCATALOGUE (eg the flawless earthly paradise that is ‘Blue Valentine’) was practically my only listening, my window on soul, on form…and on his beautiful soundtrack for F.F. Coppola’s abysmal One From The Heart, hopes stirred of a songsmith’s turn, rejuvenation.

And then (now, if one meddles in etymology, incisions into name, into the deep soil of middle English, we then remember the Waite we had: a watchman or public musician – as in, the city waits – or, a piece of music played by such a group. Also, a hidden or concealed position, or just one who waits on us. Excuse me, just some thoughts waiting for a new “Tom Waits” to arrive).

Now, to catch our breath: SWORDFISHTROMBONES – a risk taken, a conglomeration of differences, of an altogether different TOMWAITS. Each of 15 tracks is a difference in texture, tempo, temperature, without a dilettante’s dialect anywhere evident. He has broken into the store of “traditional” (some obvious, some forgotten folk or ethnic music) sounds, and the peculiar, almost deranged economy of SWORDFISHTROMBONES allows for the utmost condensation. His prismatic troubador’s bluesjazzfolketc is not the instance of someone living on in around or off the past – nostalgia over the loss of a ‘simpler’ life – but something genuinely American, as its instability reflects the immigrant flux of the point of any origin, of his origin-soaked sources. Hear, Waits gets the most grasping “white blues”, not by overhauling or polishing the motor, but through sly tampering, some let-loose sump. The sinuous sonorous resonance of these snap songs is indeed the possibility of any (more) songs, of going on in off the past – considered not as a finite point but an always present transfer or trace.

Now, Here is a man who listens a lot more than we know. (A lot more than your super informative Face: In their Waits article, the late Harry Partch – whose spirit echoes wildly around this LP – is described as an “apocryphal” figure). He recognises the profound strangeness in the clear speech of folk musics and his words assume an organic, jumbled life of their own; sounds as places, places as sounds, instrumental plants, familiar phrases which, on closer inspection, reveal the oddest watermark. Let us go right overboard and say that both sound and song mesh to create the conditions for “the greatest possible synchrony with the greatest potential for buried, accumulated, and interwoven intentions within each linguistic atom, each vocable, each word, each proposition, in all worldly cultures and their most ingenious forms.” (J Derrida)

SWORDFISHTROMBONES features a positive cornucopia of neglected instruments, some for the undergrowth, some without names, some which don’t even sound instrumental. You’ll understand if I don’t begin to itemize, then.

Now, it seems the new “Tom Waits” has turned up trumpets trauberts, braid and butter but my new wristwatch – “should go for sentries” said the guy on the stall – tells me my time has passed on the jukebox now “strangers now, funny how…things can change” and trees settled down, got married everything’s gone indehiscent the colour (of the \BONES) is Copenhagen blue through my red eyes I see it’s ninefortysev – damn watch has fallen asleep on me so I guess now, it’s closing time.