Tom Waits: Closing Time

Closing Time.jpg

All of my research on this album failed to reward me with a release date more accurate than March 1973. Thus, I’ll review it today, March 1, as the first of the month is designated for albums in my collection without a specific release date. If you happen to know the precise date, please leave it in the comments.

Closing Time was Tom Waits‘s debut album on Asylum Records, though some demo sessions were later released against his protests under the titles Early Years. The album is comprised entirely of Tom Waits originals and leans heavily toward jazz arrangements around his drawling vocal delivery, giving the whole the feel of a boozy nightclub. On its release, though well-reviewed, Closing Time garnered little popular attention, though that changed when more established artists began covering tracks from it, most notably The Eagles version of “Ol’ 55” the following year.

I was introduced to Tom Waits on a CD sampler from the now-defunct CMJ New Music Monthly magazine. The song was “Big In Japan” (though if the song was actually big in Japan, I never found out) and featured the more trademarked Waits: big noise and a huge voice that sounded as if it had been filtered through decades of tobacco and whiskey. The song was captivating, but delving into his then-current catalog in 1999 revealed an avant-garde approach to music making that was interesting – and I knew that there was something worth exploring there – but it was over my head.

Years later, I was sitting in a bar with a friend over cigars and beers and went to the jukebox on the wall where I found Tom Waits’s Closing Time in its entirety. Being that we were nearly the only people in the bar, I played the album front to back (it cost me about six bucks) and became a fan over the next 45 minutes. I know it sounds intuitive, but the best way to cultivate an appreciation for Tom Waits’s music is to start at the beginning.

When Closing Time was released, Tom was only 24, and his voice, though it sounded much older than his years, had yet to develop the characteristic growl and slur that became synonymous with his later works. Furthermore, for this album, he went with a straight ahead jazz ensemble featuring only guitar, piano, drums, and an upright bass, with a trumpet featured on several of the songs. The combination of traditional arrangements coupled with a crooner’s voice made this record much more accessible.

I still listen to this album front-to-back on occasion; every song is fantastic. Waits’s adeptness with the language allows him to pull you into the moment he’s describing, whether happy or sad. The bittersweet “I Hope That I Don’t Fall In Love With You” is one of the best arguments between heart and head ever put to music, while “Old Shoes” is a hopeful but melancholy farewell: “The road calls me, dear, and your tears cannot bind me anymore…” “Virginia Avenue” starts out as straight jazz with that big stuttering bass, piano, and guitar accents with gently brushed traps. The trumpet sidles in along with the vocals. More than any other, this song hints at some of Tom’s future projects as the future echoes back from “Heartattack And Vine.” “Midnight Lullaby” starts out, “Sing a song of sixpence / pocket full of rye…” but in this case, the rye is probably in a flask.

If there is one cut that feels out of place on this record, it is “Ice Cream Man.” Still an outstanding number, it’s the most raucous of the collection and would feel right at home being covered by The Brian Setzer Orchestra or Post Modern Jukebox. It starts out with a high-pitched tinkling piano – the herald of the title character – as an intro, almost a separate piece of the song. About twenty seconds into the track it bursts into a rockabilly swing number that could have been a hit in any decade. It sounds like nothing else on Closing Time and like very little else in Tom Waits’s catalog. But while it feels out of place, it is also one of the friendliest to listen to, cranking along for two-and-a-half minutes before fading out on the same piano theme that introduced it.

There’s not a bad song on this release, making it an incredibly strong debut, but my favorite number is the title cut and final track, “Closing Time.” This is the only instrumental on the record, with that trumpet front and center and cellos layered underneath the rest of the instruments. It is a beautiful piece that works as a jazz number but which also closes the album in the most perfect manner imaginable. It’s a four minute soundtrack to the end of the night, the last drunks and loners collecting their hats and trickling out of the bar into the sodium light of the sidewalk. Nothing left to do but sweep up.

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