Album: Franks Wild Years
Artist: Tom Waits
Released: August 17th, 1987
Highlights: Hang on St. Christopher, Innocent When You Dream (Barroom), I’ll Be Gone, Yesterday Is Here
“Franks Wild Years” is the final piece of a trilogy that saw Tom Waits transform from a late-night bar crooner who played sorrowful ballads for drunkards and losers into a musical madman who sang like Captain Beefheart and whose band used an assortment of instruments acquired at the nearest landfill. Rather than feeling like a culmination of what preceded it, though, it comes off as comedown; such quality, however, is more closely tied to the excellence of the two legs that came before it than to the tracks it contains. “Swordfishtrombones”, from 1983, was a revelatory explosion of wild and insane ideas that were frantically splattered over the wall of a dark dirty alley located by a shady harbor where drunken sailors, abundant prostitutes, and violent mafia henchmen lurked. “Rain Dogs”, released two years later, was the consolidated masterpiece created in a colorful carnival that had the joy sucked out of it by a downpour, which led its attendees to go from happy families to bums and beggars looking for shelter inside the rides and tents.
“Franks Wild Years” is, therefore, the hangover: the sailors are back to the ocean, the prostitutes have receded into the brothels, the mafia henchmen have been killed, and the beggars and bums are lying unconscious over piles of garbage. Nevertheless, even if the scene is neither as refreshing and alluring as the one from “Swordfishtrombones” nor as inspired as the one from “Rain Dogs”, “Franks Wild Years” is quite fruitful, frantic, and varied. All the usual suspects from Waits’ rackety orchestra of lunatics are here: there are enough horns to assemble a big band, there is a melancholic accordion over which Tom sings at his most intoxicated, there is a piano for when sadness seeps in, there are keyboards and electric organs that are employed to create a foggy atmosphere, there are more kinds of percussive instruments than one can find in a calypso ensemble, and there is even a rooster, whose playing (done by undisclosed means) is credited to Tom Waits himself. With that army of instruments, which are most certainly in precarious states, Tom tackles – and finds success – in numerous genres, giving his restless spin to each one of them and somehow bringing it all together under an idiosyncratic umbrella.
Originally serving as songs for a play Waits wrote with his wife, Kathleen Brennan, “Franks Wild Years” follows the titular character through a sleazy trail that alternates hope and despair, which are always underscored by a destructive nature that appears right in the opener, “Hang on St. Christopher”, where Frank – who is driving recklessly – asks the patron saint of drivers for protection. As Frank takes his emotional turns upwards and downwards, the record zaps stylistically: “I’ll Be Gone” can bet better described as pirate music; “Straight to the Top” gets two wildly different versions, one in which Waits dabbles in rumba and another where he emulates Frank Sinatra; “Train Song” is a traditional Waits bawler where the piano takes center stage; “Temptation” is carried by the Cuban guitar of Marc Ribot; “Innocent When You Dream”, which earns two version as well, is an irresistible and tipsy sing-along; and “I’ll Take New York” is another shot at Frank Sinatra territory, only – in this case – Frank is too inebriated to care and his band has not rehearsed in a decade.
As such, even though the position of “Franks Wild Years” in Tom Waits discography has led many to qualify it as a lesser release – and it indeed is inferior to the two albums that came before it, such a drop does not stop it from being utterly remarkable. Due to the fact its tunes originated on the stage, as part of the same play, there is a thematic and atmospheric coherence that permeates the entire work, one that lends it a cinematic aura, as if it songs were meant to conjure – and perhaps be accompanied by – moving images. It is a trip through the back alleys of life guided by the always watchful, insightful, and romantic eye of Tom Waits, and he expresses what he sees and gives life to the characters that inhabit his mind in unashamed musical experimentation and rich lyrical imagery.