A Listening Primer - Bandcamp


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“The songs are coming all the time,” Tom Waits said in 1999, more than 25 years after he first debuted with 1973’s singer-songwriter classic Closing Time. “Just because you didn’t go fishing today doesn’t mean there aren’t any fish out there.”

Throughout his 45-year recording career, Tom Waits has amassed one of the most enduring songbooks in American popular music. Waits, 68, is the rare songwriter whose body of work includes both an entire collection of songs that are distinctly and uniquely his (“The Piano Has Been Drinking,” “Bad As Me”) and a whole collection of ballads that have become modern standards (“Picture in a Frame,” “Ol’ 55”).

Waits’s longtime songwriting partner is Kathleen Brennan, who helped expose Waits to more experimental sounds and styles and has co-written nearly every song Waits has composed since the couple met in 1980.

“One person holds the nail, the other swings the hammer,” Waits once said of his creative partnership with Brennan. “We collaborate on everything, really. She writes more from her dreams and I wrote more from the world….Over the years she’s exposed me to a lot of music. She doesn’t like the limelight, but she’s an incandescent presence on all songs we work on together.”

After recording seven albums with the major label imprint Asylum, Waits spent the following decade with Island Records before eventually signing with the noted indie Anti- in 1999, where he remains to this day. Earlier this month, Anti- reissued the seven albums that comprise Waits’s ‘70s Asylum Records catalog, which is now available on Bandcamp in addition to the entirety of his Anti- catalog.

On the surface, Waits’s earliest ‘70s records—polished jazz-leaning singer-songwriter efforts full of late-night balladry—bear little resemblance to his recent left-field blues howling and raspy experimentation. But the entirety of Waits’s catalog is ultimately concerned with the same musical and conceptual ideas. His music, almost always some blend of jazz, blues, and folk, has always been out of time—either relentlessly stuck in the past or stubbornly forward-looking. And Waits’s primary lyrical concerns, be it the allure of nostalgia, the work of earthly redemption, the crippling effects of booze, or the eternal pull of romantic regret, have too remained constant over the course of his singular body of work.

- Jonathan Bernstein