David Bowie remains rock’s reigning chameleon, but Waits isn’t far behind. He’s had four distinct musical personalities since his 1973 debut.
The crooner | Waits’s first album, Closing Time, was a Tin Pan Alley calling card offered to the Woodstock generation. Crosby, Stills and Nash were writing the morality play “Immigration Man,” and Joni Mitchell was voicing interior dialogues on For the Roses, but Waits was crooning unabashed love songs — a sentimental troubadour with whiskey and midnight in his voice. As improbable at it seems given his current rumble-and-growl æsthetic, Closing Time’s “Ol’ 55” was covered by the Eagles. Later, Waits observed that “the only good thing about an Eagles LP is that it keeps the dust off your turntable.”
The beat poet | “Diamonds on My Windshield,” with its Lord Buckley–inspired narrative, was a signpost on 1974’s The Heart of Saturday Night that Waits was leaving the province of Hoagy Carmichael for the land of Jack Kerouac. He explored that terrain for five albums, playing piano and giving his lyrics a cabaret jazz framework. The best of these discs is 1975’s live Nighthawks at the Diner, whose “Emotional Weather Report” broke onto radio and immortalized the line “I’m so horny the crack of dawn better watch out,” and 1980’s Heart Attack and Vine (all on Elektra), which expanded on his small-ensemble sound. But a soft heart kept beating beneath the scowling hipster persona he’d cultivated. Heart Attack and Vine’s dewy ode to working-class lovers, “Jersey Girl,” was recorded by Springsteen. The tune fits so perfectly in Bruce’s canon that many assume the Jersey guy wrote it.
The explorer | After almost a decade as the high priest of jive, Waits was in a rut. The critical consensus was that he’d slid into self-parody and become a one-trick pony. But he refueled his career with 1983’s unpredictable Swordfishtrombones (Island), a sonic mad scientist’s laboratory full of brake-drum-and wooden-plank percussion, knotty horn charts, glass harmonicas, German cabaret music, prickly time signatures, and a clutch of more conventional instruments like guitars and strings distorted through studio finesse into the stuff of dark urban dreamscapes. He also changed his singing style, shredding his voice to bring life to the gritty, tormented characters of story songs like “16 Shells from a Thirty-Ought.” Two more Island albums, Rain Dogs and Franks Wild Years, refined these elements. And he beefed up the theatricality of his concerts to match his new style’s broader scope.
The auteur | Waits’s transformation from experimenter to visionary took almost another decade. In 1992, Bone Machine (Island) found him lording it over a stark, dark, personalized universe of chaos, murder, and sonic surrealism. The album’s arrangements are a tumbleweed of traditional blues and folk, clamorous industrial music, and the œuvre of modernist composers John Cage and Harry Partch. Filled with brooding tales of death, doom, and decay in a culture on its last gasp, this mesmerizing-as-a-car-crash disc was nonetheless rewarded with Waits’s first Grammy, for Best Alternative Album, and it took him to a new, younger audience. After a seven-year break, he returned with Mule Variations (Anti-), a more welcoming production thanks to primarily organic instrumentation and the bleak-but-touching emotions of numbers like the suicidal “The Ocean Doesn’t Want Me Today.” Getting virtually no airplay, as is usual for Waits, it debuted at #30 on Billboard’s pop-album chart. On his subsequent releases, Waits has managed to incorporate many aspects of his musical past and add new elements, like the hip-hop turntabulism and human beatbox sounds of 2004’s rootsy, politicized Real Gone (Anti-).