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Old 10-27-2021, 06:33 PM   #5 (permalink)
Trollheart
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Many of Waits's albums would follow themes, though only one to my knowledge is an actual concept album, and his second one certainly does bring together songs that are linked with a common thread, this being travelling, movement, comings and goings, hellos and farewells. It's a much higher tempo, upbeat affair in general than Closing Time is, and it shows him stretching his musical muscles as his songwriting develops beyond the mostly lovelorn ballads of the debut.

The Heart of Saturday Night (1974)

This album would also mark the beginning of a relationship that would flourish throughout most of Waits's career, that of his friendship with producer Bones Howe, who would helm almost all of his albums from here on in. Right away we're presented with a louder, rougher, more rowdy Waits than has been present on the debut. The man who peeked through slightly in “Ice Cream Man” now comes strutting to the fore as we open on “New Coat of Paint”, with an exuberant piano and a rolling melody, the voice of a man who's ready for a night on the town. ”You wear a dress” he tells his lady, ”I'll wear a tie/ We'll laugh at that old bloodshot moon/ In that burgundy sky.” Much of the introspection of Closing Time is left behind now as Waits puts on his best duds and steps out on the town with his girl, smirking ”Fishin' for a good time/ Starts with throwin' in your line.” If this was anyone else, you might say that he'd learned the lessons from the mostly positive reception of his debut, but its low sales, and had decided to give people something to dance to, or tap their fingers to, a more commercial Waits. But then, this is Tom Waits, and he don't give a shit what you think or who you are. Perhaps underlining this, the next track is a slow moody ballad, as “San Diego Serenade”, later covered by Nanci Griffith, returns us to the style of the debut. Again piano led, it features a beautiful string section accompaniment that really lifts the song to another level, and you can hear the regret in his voice as he sings ”Never saw your heart/ Till someone tried to steal it away/ Never saw your tears/ Till they rolled down your face.”

And then we're off again with “Semi Suite” (another word play which would become his trademark) as he drawls the tale of a truck driver on the road, and the woman he leaves behind to wait for him. Strongly driven by smoky trumpet and bass, this song trips along in a very mid-paced jazz/blues vein, the sort of song you could definitely see Waits playing in a smoke-choked bar as patrons ignore him and glasses clink amid conversation. Some fine piano as ever sprinkled through the tune, and really effective double bass from Jim Hughart adds to the small-town-jazz-club-after-hours feel of the song. Although written from the perspective of the woman, the song could be taken as an anthem for truckers, as Waits sings ”He's a truck driving man/ Stoppin' when he can.”

One of the standouts for me is next, another ballad as Waits leaves everything behind in “Shiver Me Timbers” to go to sea, possibly inspired by his time spent with the Coastguard. Soft violin accompanies him as he moans ”The fog's liftin'/ Sand's shiftin'/ And I'm driftin' on by” and there's a lovely midsection on acoustic guitar. Following this beautiful creation we have a swinging blues tune in “Diamonds On My Windshield”, pulled along by a wonderful double bass and some skittering percussion, Waits almost performing a rap of sorts, very jazzy. The rhythm of the vocal really comes into its own when he sings ”Eights goes east/ fives goes north/ Merging nexus, back and forth”. It's a short song, an ode to driving home in the rain, an example of the sort of minimalist song he would come back to time and again, one on his next album being nothing more than percussion, another where he is accompanied by a solo lonely wailing sax.

A simple acoustic guitar then ushers in the first of two semi-title tracks. ”(Looking for) The Heart of Saturday Night” trips along nicely in a laconic manner, folky and acoustic and very catchy. Double bass again plays a prominent part in this song, then we kick the tempo back up for the first time since the opener with “Fumblin' With the Blues”, an upbeat bopper with a lot of jazz and swing in it. The piano comes back into its own here, and some fine saxophone adds its voice, as does electric piano. It's a song that's kind of hard to sit still to, and Waits's voice is on fine form here. He perhaps begins to look at his drinking habit here as he admits ”I'm a pool-shootin' shimmy shyster/ Shakin' my head/ When I should be livin' clean instead.” Taking the tempo down then for “Please call me baby”, a lovely little bluesy piano tune as Waits tries to win back his lover after an argument, and frames his desire in a blatant lie about being concerned about her health: I don't want you catchin'/ Your death of cold/ Out walkin' in the rain” but defends his actions rather pathetically and self-deprecatingly when he sings ”If I exorcise my devils/ My angels may leave too.” Lovely strings section employed here too.

From this on it's pretty much slow material and moodier pieces as we head into “Depot, Depot” riding on a thick trumpet line and some smoky sax, and a repeat in the lyric of a line from “Virginia Avenue” as he asks ”Now, tell me, what a poor boy to do?” while “Drunk On the Moon” (is it coincidence, I wonder, that his previous album also had a song about the moon as the second-last track?) continues this loose theme, as ”Some Bonneville is screamin'/ Its way wilder down the street” and Waits realises ”I've hocked all my yesterdays/ Don't try to change my tune.” Great sax solo here from Tom Scott which ushers in a total change of rhythm as the double bass takes the tune and ramps up the tempo, swinging and strutting along till the piano brings it all back down to earth for the concluding section. We end then on the other song with the title in it, “The Ghosts of Saturday Night”, with an almost narrated vocal backed by rippling piano, kind of an outro to the album, or an epilogue. Here Waits uses a device he would return to regularly, waitresses and restaurants, as he speaks of a woman with ”Maxwell House eyes/ With marmalade thighs /And scrambled yellow hair” and of eating ”Hash browns, hash browns/ You know I can't be late.” The music is almost incidental, a soft backing for his recounting of the late night folks and what they do when we're all in bed, the ghosts of Saturday night.

TRACK LISTING

1. New Coat of Paint
2. San Diego Serenade
3. Semi Suite
4. Shiver Me Timbers
5. Diamonds On My Windshield
6. (Looking for) The Heart of Saturday Night
7. Fumblin' With the Blues
8. Depot, Depot
9. Please Call Me Baby
10. Drunk On the Moon
11. The Ghosts of Saturday Night (After Hours at Napoleone's Pizza House)

You can definitely see the effect his drinking was having on Waits's songwriting here. While it's improving in leaps and bounds from the songs on his debut, it's also more concerned with characters who weave from one dark alley to the next in search of an after-hours drinking hole or club they can stagger into. The problems of relationships are explored too and an abiding love for cars and driving, and here too Waits expands on his respect for and love of jazz and blues, dialling back the folky influences and dropping much of the country feel too.

Allover, it's a much more accomplished and well-rounded album, and points the way to the one which would bring him to international notice, though that is yet one album away. The things he sings of are not esoteric: they are the visceral and raw, real and relatable, and they pull us into his dark, murky world, showing us what life is like on the bad side of town. This would continue to be the path he would tread throughout his next few albums, always showing us the darker side of life, shining his torch like some spectral night watchman and often throwing up darker and more scary shadows than we could ever possibly imagine. There is, however, great tenderness to be found in his songs too, and this would occasionally leak through perhaps despite his best efforts to remain gritty and hard-bitten.

But if you had decided to take that trip through the dark halls of humanity with him, you had better be prepared, because the journey had just begun.

Rating: 8.8/10
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