Tom Waits has made a career out of doing precisely the wrong thing. While the Beatles invaded America, he attempted to get a job as a Sinatra-style crooner at a San Diego golf club. As San Francisco turned psychedelic, he travelled to Haight-Ashbury with the intention of becoming not a hippy, but a be-bop-fuelled beatnik. When the US became dominated by the 70s west coast sound - cocaine-numbed faux-country about takin' it easy - Waits was to be found growling mournful piano ballads in which drunken low-lifes without a dime in their pockets cursed their luck while staring at the hookers through the neon-lit diner window.
In stripping away convention, Waits occasionally lets his songs go to extremes with absurd simplicity, such as on "Don't Go into That Barn," a musical cousin to his spoken "What's He Building?" from Mule Variations. But there's also the downright riotous squall of "Shake It," which sounds like an insane carny barker jamming with R.L. Burnside, or the riotous raging blues of "Baby Gonna Leave Me." There are "straight" narratives such as "How's It Gonna End," with its slow and brooding beat storyline, and the moving murder ballad "Dead and Lovely," with its drooping, shambolic elegance.
Critics tend to break Tom Waits’ career into two distinct segments, the split occurring between 1980 (the underrated Heartattack and Vine) and 1983 (Swordfishtrombones) when Waits ditched his manager, producer, and label and revised his approach to writing, recording, and arranging. It’s a clear point of departure and one worth emphasizing – Waits adopted a more theatrical performance style, incorporated diverse and expressive sound elements, and broadened his narrative and emotional scope. Suddenly last-call piano rags and bourbon-soaked ballads were subsumed and expanded into delirious jigs and bloodshot tarantellas featuring a ribald cast of carnie barkers, conscripted dwarves, and backwoods murderers.