I’m a big fan of the various incarnations of Tom Waits, and Swordfishtrombones begins, for me, his most rewarding phase in music. I remember reading that Waits, a great piano player, banned himself from writing songs on the instrument in order to push himself into new musical areas. In 1983, when the album came out, no one else was doing anything like this. Waits invokes the ghost of early 20th century musical theater (less show tunes, more music hall) to create what would become the “Tom Waits sound” for many people in the years to come. Songs like “Underground” and “16 Shells From a Thirty-Ought-Six” have the sound of greasy blues or junkyard instrument jams. They’re weird and make the listener feel weird—in the best way. But Waits has always excelled as a storyteller, the narrator of a darker or sadder side of life, and these songs prove that, at least in that way, he hasn’t changed much at all. Whether you’re listening to these songs in the car, surrounded by heavy traffic on the way to work, or over an iPod in your affluent beach house, they transport you to a lonely desperation—you’re suddenly listening to them while sitting on your bed in your overpriced one-bedroom downtown, where a broken neon sign glares in through your window. Waits makes magic.
As for the product itself, these songs belong on vinyl, and it’s great to hear them this way. Although Best Buy lists this as the 2009 LP, mine is marked “Made in the Netherlands,” which makes me suspect it may be the 2016 repressing that Discogs.com lists. That would make it part of the “Back to Black” series, which has done a good job with the other titles they’ve released, like Creedence Clearwater Revival’s catalogue. Many vinyl fans are snobs about the sound and will lecture you on why this record’s bad and this record’s good, but I’m uninformed on much of that, and just trust my ears. It sounds great to me. I haven’t experienced any skips or disturbances with my brand new copy, which I can’t say of albums I’ve bought such as John Lennon’s rereleases and the Black Keys’ Brothers. This purchase has met my expectations in all ways, and I’m glad to own it.