Even those who have difficulty latching onto the work of Tom Waits are apt to admire the artist’s grandiose ambition. In each chapter of his diverse career, Waits ignores all of his previous efforts and stretches his music in order to meet his seemingly limitless imagination, all while still maintaining a consistent structural persona that is undeniably his. In a truly experimental move – even by the outlandish standards set by his preceding album, Rain Dogs – Franks Wild Years saw Waits recreating the disgruntled cries of the urban jungle by way of a new extension of his ever-present poetic soul.
Taking its name from one of the more coercive tracks on Swordfishtrombones, the album sprouted from a play of the same title, one of Waits’s great collaborations with his wife, Kathleen Brennan. While the record was not entirely a replication of the stage production, the two pieces overlap significantly, recounting the same events with the timeline rearranged. Motivated by a twisted sense of humor and traveling through both mood and location, Franks Wild Years is an inspired nightmare of a musical journey
Without wasting any time, the album begins by tapping into something primal, with aggressive percussion rhythms and a funky tenor saxophone serving as a train whistle. “Hang On St. Christopher” is unsettling, as it drags its listeners deep into the hidden underbelly of Tom Waits’s ghastly world. The title itself invokes the patron saint of travelers, whose blessing the audience will undoubtedly need if they are going to embark on this macabre expedition.
Like the opening to a modernized Icarus fable, “Straight to the Top (Rhumba)” is the embodiment of a lifelong unquenched appetite. Although there is a real sense of drive to circumnavigate the filthy working class struggle, the song feels like an old drinker telling tall tales at the bar. Frank is trapped in a dream world, and this is our first tip that he might not be the most reliable narrator.
Keeping with the theme of leaving your life behind for a more satisfying one, “Blow Baby Blow” comes to us in the form of a haunted carnival waltz. With xylophone and accordion serving as primary instruments, childlike wonder juxtaposes the demoralized tale that’s unfolding. The whole song follows a cyclical pattern, like a hellish merry-go-round. The song is setting the scene for Frank to explore new worlds, and find the angels and demons that are lurking just around the corner.
Shifting gears, “Temptation” finds us in the bowels of a seedy, late-night jazz club. Tom Waits is constantly experimenting with the limitations of his voice and on this track he layers operatic wailing with strained whispers, establishing both extremes of the vocal range he will display throughout the album. The song finds a man who is overcome by his own desires, paving the way for one of the lyrical oxymorons we’ve come to expect from Waits: “My will has disappeared / Now my confusion’s oh so clear.”
Frank, and to a lesser extent Waits himself, is categorized primarily as a dreamer, so it only makes sense that we spend nearly all of this album several shades away from realism. “Innocent When You Dream (Barroom)” has all the trappings of a lullabye, serving as a smooth transition into the dream world. It is the kind of song that would have appeared in a more straightforward form on an early Tom Waits album. Now, it is beefed up with out-of-this-world orchestration and the disconcertingly grizzled vocals that became a trademark of the singer in his more experimental years.
“I’ll Be Gone” picks up the tempo and brings the horn section back in. Waits is at his best when he gives into his gnarled playfulness, with few better examples than this track. Even as he relays this story of destruction, his voice is clearly foaming with glee. It’s easy for a listener to visualize Waits grinning as the words dance across his lips.
While it is balanced against humor, many of Waits’s songs are anchored by cynicism. “Yesterday Is Here” is steeped in the realization that your best days have already come and gone, and there is little left to look forward to other than the sweet release of death. The song is the perfect soundtrack for driving down an empty desert road in the middle of the night. With the high-pitched guitar twang, it calls to mind the score from a Sergio Leone film.
The aptly named “Please Wake Me Up” signals a return to reality. Pieces of the harmony mimic the sound of an alarm clock chiming, overpowering the understated vocals. The song starts off surprisingly sweet – almost a croon – before taking a decidedly darker turn: “Next to the pawnshop’s a chapel / I’ll show you just what I mean.”
Although it served as an introduction in the stage production, here, “Frank’s Theme” fills the role of intermission. It flaunts traces of the lounge singer Waits started his career as, even if it’s all simply tongue in cheek. There are plenty more references to the dream structure we’re in, with dreams being used to combat hardship and sorrow. The song is the ideal bridge to “More Than Rain,” an upbeat accordion-driven song with its own depressing message.
Before it was given a brand new meaning by its inclusion in HBO’s The Wire, “Way Down in the Hole” served as the tonal crux of Franks Wild Years. A nightmarish twist on a gospel hymn, the song unleashes the crazed beast we all came to see. Up until this point in the album, Waits had been relatively restrained, but he was no longer able to hold anything back as he bellows out the spiritual lyrics completely uninhibited.
For “Straight to the Top (Vegas)”, Waits goes in the exact opposite direction. We see him taking a song from earlier in the album and flipping it on its ass in order to ape himself. The speaker is an obnoxious Sinatra parody, and he provides for us the safe, overly clean version of what could have been. He stirs up the audience, particularly with is use of ‘whoa’s to fill the space between lyrics.
“I’ll Take New York” returns to the manic preachings of a street urchin. Tom Waits’s borrowed persona is bursting at the seams, giving way to mental instability. As if the raw, gritty nature of the track didn’t already call to mind the atmosphere of a live performance, Waits adds in the applause of the audience. Vocally, Waits has found a brilliant balance of what he had displayed on the previous two tracks.
Still one of the best uses of a Farfisa, “Telephone Call From Istanbul” feels like the soundtrack of a foreign dive bar. The spitfire lyricism on the song feels like a tribute to the poets Waits so passionately adores, namely Charles Bukowski. The singer is growling in a vernacular that only he truly understands. Even still, the tone is displayed so articulately that the words themselves play second fiddle to the atmosphere they are engulfed in.
Tom Waits has the admirable ability to shift gears at the drop of a hat without ever sounding disingenuous. Sounding almost like Bruce Springsteen trying his hand at a Cajun tune, “Cold Cold Ground” is the kind of song that matches whatever mood the listener brings to it. There are so many conflicting emotions at play here that you could return to the track and hear an entirely different story unfolding.
Another tribute to Waits’s piano-laden days, “Train Song” is a testament to the singer’s ability to craft a heartbreaking ballad. As he allows himself to be truly vulnerable, his voice cracks under the emotional weight he places upon it. “Train Song” is the perfect score for a bout of late-night solo drinking.
For “Innocent When You Dream (78),” Waits once again returns to an earlier song to approach it from a different angle. This time, it sounds like an old radio show crackling its way out of a gramophone record. Waits comes across as a relative – someone who knows us deeply – and it brings us into his songs. It is the perfect ending to the album, playing like your father singing you to sleep.
Franks Wild Years thrusts rock music forward, all while keeping an eye on the past. Often regarded as the conclusion of a trilogy (capping the story arc constructed by Swordfishtrombones and Rain Dogs), the album crafts a fully realized narrative that stands on its own. Waits continues to surpass himself, both in terms of strangeness and in the way he is able to navigate uncharted waters with skill and ease. It’s difficult to rank the albums of a performer whose work is constantly jutting off in varied directions, but Franks Wild Years stands among the most gifted additions to his catalog.