Tom Waits is a genius sui generis. (Go look that one up, kids.) He spent the first phase of his career (in the 1970s) doing the semi-sensitive songwriter gig, with some twists that made you realize he had maybe a few screws loose. But his heart was always in the right place. And for the most part, he held onto his sanity fairly well.
Until Swordfishtrombones. I mean, the title alone should tell you something. Tom suddenly begins grunting, slithering, squawking, and belching out his songs, exorcising some mighty hepcat demons and channeling his Beat Generation forebears. Not that he was all crazy...he still painted some gorgeous, almost impressionistic ballads, like the sentimental "Johnsburg, Illinois." But some of those songs were juxtaposed with music so nearly hallucinatory and random that the serious, unironic stuff was like hitting a brick wall after careening down an alley in a car without brakes. Swordfishtrombones is brilliant in large part for its fearless leap into primitive, absurd territory, the likes of which had probably not been imagined for at least 10 years. It's doubly triumphant for having been released in 1983, a year rife with synthesizers and hair mousse. Saying that this album ignored the trends of its time implies far too much of a relationship. Swordfishtrombones simply existed in its own universe.
"Frank's Wild Years," a hilarious short monologue performed like a poetry reading complete with groovy organ in the background, just has to be heard. I mean, any piece that starts this way is an instant classic, no matter what follows: "Frank settled down out in the Valley, and he hung his wild years on a nail that he drove through his wife's forehead." And the humor continues. Frank lives a suburban life with a wife who's derided as a "spent piece of used jet-trash." (Thankfully, she "kept her mouth shut most of the time.") Their little chihuahua Carlos "had some kind of skin disease and was totally blind" - an automatic shoo-in for the World's Ugliest Dog Championships. Tom Waits deadpans his way through the monologue as deftly as Steven Wright, with an abrupt ending it would be unfair to reveal. (Apparently, "Frank's Wild Years" struck Waits so much, he decided to expand on the song, creating an album by the same name four years later.)
Can't say much else except to repeat: Tom Waits is hidden treasure, a quixotic angelheaded hipster that deserves a wide audience. Swordfishtrombones may be a bit too eccentric an album to start out with for most people, but if you wanna dive in, "Frank's Wild Years" is among the best and most accessible of the songs here.
(Also recommended: "Johnsburg, Illinois," "16 Shells From a Thirty-Ought Six," "Down, Down, Down," "Soldier's Things")