Closing Time (1973)
Why: I deliberated over which of Waits' first two albums I should feature. They stand as the most unchallenging Waits records--not a bad thing, especially considering the demanding nature of much of his catalog. But they cover a lot of the same territory, and with about eight albums from his early period alone, I had to spread it out a bit. Plus, being familiarized with Waits' first release is important, especially when you reach the more experimental stuff. His progression is staggering. At any rate, Closing Time seemed right.
While some fans maintain that Waits neophytes should be baptized by fire via some of his more bizarre work, I think Closing Time is the perfect point of entry for the uninitiated. At 45 minutes, it isn't a long album. But more importantly, Tom's vocals are as tame as you'll ever hear them. This is key, because Tom's voice can be the most difficult hurdle in embracing his music. And understandably so -- the guy has spent much of his career roaring at the mic like a rabid hellhound. It's an element of his style that takes an acquired taste to appreciate. But with Closing Time (and follow-up The Heart of Saturday Night), we hear a docile, warm delivery that's a little craggy but isn't any stranger than John Prine or Bob Dylan. Building up your tolerance is the key.
Closing Time is a safe record. I feel comfortable recommending it to just about anyone, because the music is both high-quality and accessible. Tom Waits is a proponent of the former; the latter, you'll soon realize, he could take or leave.
Songs to Know: The album is populated by weepy love songs ("Martha", "Little Trip to Heaven"), boppy jazz ("Virginia Avenue", "Ice Cream Man"), and warm barroom ballads ("I Hope That I Don't Fall In Love With You", "Rosie"). I call special attention to "Martha", which still stands as one of Waits' more perfect compositions. The piano/string ballad is the story of a man catching up with a lost love forty years later. Waits' ragged voice is the perfect vehicle for conjuring the feelings of nostalgia and regret that linger throughout the song. Listen to this song and try not to be emotionally stirred. If you succeed, be sure to get your oil changed every 3000 miles, you dirty cyborg:
2: His voice may catch you off guard at first, but it sounds like Barry Manilow compared to his later stuff. The songs are simple folk compositions (appealing enough for the Eagles to bastardize), with a little bit of slow jazz swirled in. I suppose the brassy stuff might turn some folks off, but I think there's something for everyone on Closing Time.
Also Check Out: The Heart of Saturday Night, Tom's second album. It's relatively similar with a little bit more beatnik jazz stuff, and it's ballad-heavy. "Shiver Me Timbers" is one of Tom's finest early-period sad bastard piano ballads. And it boasts one of my favorite album covers. Here are both:
There is a chance that these are the only two Waits albums you'll like. I would consider this a minor tragedy, but understandable all the same. Waits wasn't content with playing the jazzy beatnik role his entire career. Like many great artists--The Beatles, Dylan, Radiohead--Waits evolved stylistically, and pissed off a lot of fans in doing so. Closing Time came out in 1973. By the 1980s, Waits was almost an entirely different animal. Only 1982's One from the Heart was a stylistic regression...but I guess when Francis Ford Coppola asks you to score a film, you swallow your pride.
Our next column will look at Tom's last early-period LP proper: 1980's Heartattack and Vine.