Tom Waits – Nighthawks at the Diner

Grapes o’ fire, sometime in-between this album and the last album was when Tom Waits started singing like a werewolf, so from now on he would sound incredibly scraggly and smoked. Which is weird, seeing as he was the same age I am when he recorded this album (26) and I don’t sound a fuckwit like that. But hey, here’s a classy joke: Q: What’s white and black and dumb all over? A: A Polack wearing a black shirt!

So this album, easily Waits’ longest to date, is a “live” album, quotations necessary as it’s really more like “live in studio,” with an audience aware that an album was being recorded. So if you listen and think it’s a little suspicious that a live crowd never requests “Martha” and laughs with equal warmth at every joke, that’s because it is odd. There’s nothing old at all except for a tiny teaser of “Ice Cream Man” during an outro, so consider this a studio album for all purposes.

But the live setting really works for the style of the album. It’s still just scraggle-voice, piano, standup bass, guitar, and saxomophone, but the singing style is suddenly half monologue, with long rambling introductions to songs filled with lots of lots of (probably carefully scripted) jokes and wordplay, all of it charmingly old-fashioned sounding. The material is way more hardboiled than before – think of this album as a show at a lounge that the narrator of the first two albums often attends. The booziness and tiredness is way amped up. Heck, he starts the album by wishing “an inebriated good evening to you all” and closes by saying “I have to see a man about a dog.” That, if you didn’t know, is flapper slang for needing to go get drunk. Ah, the flappers. Now there was a group that would have been more fun with birth control.

The songs are all sad sacks and hard luck dames and urbanized losers. There’s a song about shitty late-night diners, bitching about being happier being single, a depressing county, lots of sitting at bars spilling troubles, and a cover of a story about a trucker that dies to save a bunch of children.

But anyway, the intros and jokes get old by the fifth time you hear them, as do clever turns of phrase like “the dark warm narcotic American night”, as you do, but most of the songs are pretty timeless, with the exception of a couple improvised rambles that you really have to listen to raptly to follow. I don’t know how he does it, but the sound is so smoky and monologued that it makes a listener smile faintly and pour herself a straight whisky. Listen a couple times and you’ll want to describe your emotional state with an “Emotional Weather Report”. Be careful or you’ll end up with the chorus of “Eggs and Sausage” in your head for three years like my friend Kristen Frederick. It’s a whole new world, and it’s an old world, and it’s more about feeling, but christ it’s a hell of an atmosphere.
And about “Big Joe and Phantom 309” – the narrator of the song asks why Big Joe gave his rig such a name, and Big Joe replies “well, son, don’t you know this rig’d be puttin’ ’em all to shame?” Which doesn’t answer the narrator’s questions at all. Alright.

8 /10


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