• Phil Hale

Album Analysis | Tom Waits - Closing Time

Waits' outstanding debut album heralded the arrival of a major, irrepressible talent.

Revisiting Tom Waits' debut album Closing Time is to simultaneously journey into a thought experiment, a musical treasure hunt and a simple sensory experience. To fully embrace it one has to set aside expectations that Waits is going to growl his way through the songs, a difficult task if his later music is your benchmark. At the same time, disguised and awaiting discovery, are nuggets of the styling that have established his place in the pantheon of great American musical artists. Ultimately the experience of the album is as an autonomous collection of work that delivers on its own terms.

The album kicks off with "Ol’ 55", a tribute to post coital bliss, a song of resilience in the face of disappointment. Waits languidly counts the song in before his piano sets a mellow mood. The use of “lickety-splickly” in the second line lets us know we should take this song only so seriously. It wraps you in a 70’s folky embrace, think Randy Newman and James Taylor birthing a love child: this could be their offspring's debut single.

The guitar and choral vocal support veer uncomfortably close to overwhelming the performance, hinting at the more anthemic Eagles cover that brought the song and Waits wider attention. It drowns the wistful elements of the lyrics; after all our narrator was booted out of his lover’s bed at 6 a.m. and unceremoniously told to be on his way.

Next, Waits makes a first person introduction to the late night world of bars that much of his future work will inhabit. “I Hope I Don’t Fall In Love With You” is a canticle for every drunken man’s romanticizing of a face in the crowd. An addled and inebriated logic attaches itself to the fantasy that the stranger across the room shares his loneliness. The conceit that he hopes he doesn’t fall in love and finally that she doesn’t do the same with him embeds itself in his thoughts. And then she’s gone. There was never contact, nor likely was it ever on the cards. Two songs in and Waits has straddled the gap between his tender age of twenty-three and the weary emotions of an older man clinging to the prospect of a redemptive encounter. The fact that he presents it with a romantic feint is an early indication that we are in the presence of someone with an uncanny understanding of the vulnerable underbelly of the human condition.

It is also a precursor to "Martha". Here Waits slips effortlessly into the character of "Tom Frost", who exhales an elegy on the death of youthful innocent love down a telephone line to his old love. We don’t get to hear "Martha". in fact we are not even sure she is listening. Waits has invited us to bear witness to the nostalgic musings of a disappointed, dissatisfied man. The genius of the song is that it holds its tension in a one-way encounter. “Frost’s” pain is aching, his distress camouflaged with self-reflection until the devastation of the last two lines

“And I remember quiet evenings

Trembling close to you”

"Virginia Avenue" is a drunken stagger of a song, pushed and pulled along by Delbert Bennett's trumpet- a requiem for the lost hopes in the life of a bar hopper. It is getting closer to the sound Waits wanted for the album, a desire that was redirected elsewhere by producer Jerry Yester’s insistence on a more folk-based sound.

Waits floats between his past and future artistic self on the album. On "Old Shoes (& Picture Postcards)" he reveals his penchant for parentheses in song titles. We hear the sound of country rock (a sound he would jettison from this point forward) and the heartache so often associated with that genre.

In "Midnight Lullaby" he mines old sources - 18th Century English nursery rhyme "Sing a Song of Sixpence" and American South lullaby "Hush Pretty Baby" - to create a piano and trumpet soaked ode to tenderness. Waits is an empath as much as he is a barroom slugger. This signaling of his love of vernacular and tradition folded into new material foreshadows his later songwriting technique.

His intent to create a jazz piano-infused album establishing his late night crooner persona is captured on "Little Trip to Heaven (On the Wings of Your Love)" and "Grapefruit Moon”. Meanwhile "Ice Cream Man” swings along, demonstrating Waits’ range and willingness to use sexual innuendo to communicate his message. The album may be awash with melancholy but Waits wants to be sure we know there is a twinkle in his eye.

On "Rosie", Waits delivers a late night lament that the titular character of the song is out of reach. She evades him, whilst he pleads for a clue on how to persuade her. He is more bemused than desperate, reaching for a high note that he cannot quite hold to call her name, the perfect metaphor for the song.

"Lonely" is perhaps the most poignant song of the collection. It is the antithesis of "Little Trip to Heaven (On the Wings of Your Love)" which sees Waits channeling Sinatra in an uncomplicated love song. "Lonely" imparts the sense that you are listening to the singer secretly: a door has been left ajar and he’s alone in a room. You stand quietly outside,he doesn’t know you are there. The lyrics, whilst not sophisticated, hold a profound sadness that seeps from the voice and piano. When the song finishes you tip-toe away.

Waits chooses to see the album out with its title track, "Closing Time". He introduces it with “let's do one for posterity”. The “one” he lays down is an instrumental, with Tony Terran on trumpet duties. Terran weaves his way around Waits’ plaintive piano, and the cello and bowed double bass pour their lilting honey into the gaps. Yester is quoted as saying, “At the end of it, no one spoke for what felt like five minutes, either in the booth or out in the room. No one budged. Nobody wanted the moment to end."

This album is not without flaws, be they Yester's over eager production or an occasional lyrical lapse by Waits. But, it is an outstanding debut. Waits recorded some of these songs separately and live around the same time, and versions of "Ol ’55" and "I Hope I Don't Fall in Love With You" as solo piano or acoustic guitar pieces give a flavor of what he may have delivered if left entirely to his own devices.

Bones Howe would take over Producer duties for Waits’ next handful of albums, as Waits honed his craft and his voice into the malleable and distinctive instrument he is renowned for. Steeped in jazz sensibilities, Howe was the perfect foil for the growing artist. Howe recounted their working relationship this way “Tom would say to me, ‘You hold the stick for me to jump over, and every album you hold the stick a little higher.’” With the textured and accomplished Closing Time, Waits handed over a stick already held at quite a stretch.

Listen to Tom Waits' Closing Time on Spotify here.

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