Throughout his career Tom Waits has made his reputation for being a wilful and wayward force of creativity in music. His reputation is legendary, his output is revered by his peers and if anything, he’s become increasingly uncompromising as his career has progressed. As a result of this his best known albums like Heart Attack and Vine, Swordfishtrombones, Rain Dogs and Mule Variations are just the tip of a vast iceberg of talent.
Fans of Wait’s more outré output often turn their nose up at his debut though, as they see it as too much of a singer songwriter album. For them it’s too straight-laced. Too ordinary. Too safe. Maybe even too accessible. Closing Time tends to be the album that Tom Waits fans avoid because it doesn’t sound much like Tom Waits. Personally I love it.
Closing Time has a hazy, booze-soaked, country-jazz feel to it, but you can probably jump to that conclusion by the artwork alone. Just writing those words would normally scream out to me to avoid this album at all costs, but for some reason I felt compelled to investigate it fifteen years ago and since then it has slowly woven its way into the fabric of my life.
The album opens with the original version of “Ol’ 55”, which many fans of the Eagles and their limp and unsatisfying cover version are unfamiliar with. Even with the spectre of country-rock lurking in its shadow, it’s a great song and Waits’ woozy rendition blows the better known cover-version clean out of the water. Waits just hasn’t written this song, he’s lived it. He’s breathed it. Given that this is the first song on his debut album, the fact that he manages to convey such emotional exhaustion in a line as simple as ‘light’s beginning to fade’ is a hell of a statement of intent and the first sign that he was a singular and extraordinary talent.
After such a great opening track, it’s totally unexpected that the second track “I Hope That I Don’t Fall in Love With You” completely overshadows it in every conceivable way. It’s a heart-rending song of unspoken missed romantic opportunities, regret and acceptance from the point of view of a hard-bitten and careworn barfly slumped at a bar and trying to achieve drunken oblivion by the cheapest means possible. It’s a suitably quiet and downbeat number, but at the same time, for me at least, it’s Waits’ best song of his entire career, which, lets face it, isn’t short on brilliant songs.
“Virginia Avenue” allows the album to shift down to a more sustainable gear and while it’s not quite as good as the songs that went before, isn’t a weak tune by any means. It maintains the mood and while it is filler, it’s superior filler at least. The same could be said for “Old Shoes (& Picture Postcards)”. Don’t get me wrong, on any other album, these songs would be stand outs, but on Closing Time, they find themselves in the company of some quite beautiful songs.
“Midnight Lullaby” flirts around a soft and smokey jazz tune and is a pointer towards the type of song that Waits would very much make his own during the rest of the 70s. Sure, it’s a prototype for what was yet to come, but it’s startling to hear just how fully realised it was compared to Wait’s more heralded jazz-flecked work later in the decade.
“Martha” finds Waits inhabiting another character all together and is another heartbreaker. Anyone who believes that Tim Buckley’s cover is the definitive version of the song is proven utterly incorrect upon listening to Waits’ original. A man with a life well lived behind him calls the girl who represents the great missed opportunity of his life out of the blue, to say hello after years of silence, recount the story of his life, their love, the lessons he’s learned since and to explain that although he missed her through the intervening decades, he’s had a good life, and he hopes that she has too. Whether he is singing this to an answer machine or an anonymous third party is something I have never figured out, but it packs an oddly emotional punch nonetheless as once again Waits performs it with an emotional weight and gravitas far beyond his age at the time.
The second half of the album opens with the duo of “Rosie” and “Lonely”, a pair of killer songs that would have a lot more impact if they weren’t following the emotion low-blow of “Martha”. Heard in isolation, they’re great, great numbers, but with the running order as it is they get a little forgotten in the shuffle. There same cannot be said of the moment of levity provided by the cover of “Ice Cream Man”, but even then, it’s tinged with what sounds like borderline madness. It swings like mad, and is the closest that Closing Time gets to an upbeat number.
The tempo is again dropped and further jazzy flourishes are indulged in through “Little Trip to Heaven (On the Wings of Your Love)”, which does everything you’d expect a song with a title like that to do. It’s pretty, it’s well executes, but perhaps it’s also a little too smug for its own good.
The album’s last great stand-out moment is “Grapefruit Moon”, which sounds like and oddly optimistic and lovelorn lullaby which finds Waits once again at the top of his game, even at this early point in his career. He leaves us with the album’s title track, a beautiful instrumental number that evokes the smokey jazz bar vibe the whole album has had, allowing us drift off into a fitful slumber following the comforting “Grapefruit Moon”.
Closing Time is an album I discovered during my early 20s, a period of my life where I was laying the foundations for the rest of my life (buying a house, starting a career, etc), but also a time where I found myself emotionally lost and adrift. It provided comfort, it made sense to me and when my hopeless romantic dreams came crashing down around my ears (something which happened with all too much alarming regularity back then), it provided the soundtrack to countless evenings of me sat in my arm chair, drinking a reasonably priced singe-malt, stroking my cat and wondering what the future really held for me. As a result of all this, I probably hold the album in far higher regard than a lot of people have over the years. For me, though Tom Waits has recorded a slew of better received, more exciting and weirder albums since, he has never recorded a prettier and more emotionally true album than his debut.