Listening to Tom Wait’s first album is a jarring, almost unnerving experience. Like taking a swig of whiskey when you were expecting water, this is not what you thought you were putting in your mouth. Gone are the ultra-raspy, Louis Armstrong-on-steroids-and-anti-depressants-vocals; the shrieking brass; the grotesque, surreal lyrics. What we get instead, is the work of a sweet, sentimental singer-songwriter, with jazz, folk and blues sensibilities and a delicate sense of humor. Wait’s first LP, Closing Time, was released in March, 1973 when Waits was a wee lad of 24 and, of course, had had not fully developed his future musical persona yet. But that does not make this debut record any less stunning, just different.

Take the opening number, “Ol’ 55,” for instance. A tapestry woven with gorgeous piano and acoustic guitar, refined vocal melodies stacked with vibrant major harmonies, filled with celebratory lyrics about sunshine, the joys of driving, feeling on top of the world, presumably after a night of great romance and even better sex. The song is beautiful, an astonishing leadoff track: who could have predicted this same man would later be singing the “Being For the Benefit of Mr. Kite!”-gone psychotic, misanthropic, nightmarish “Misery Is the River of the World?” Yet, so it is. A song poignant and vibrant enough to be covered by artists as diverse as The Eagles, Richie Havens, Sarah MacLachlan, Widespread Panic, Gov’t Mule, and Queens of the Stone Age, it leaves you with a feeling of calm euphoria, the best, mellowest high.

Nostalgia runs rampant throughout the albums musical arrangement and lyrics, and yet the album sounds perfectly contemporary with its early 1970s peers. The music isn’t far off from early Billy Joel and Elton John territory, but from a very different perspective. If Billy Joel was the entertainer at the piano man bar, standing aloof and somewhat divorced from the members of the crowd which he describes, Waits is most decidedly a patron, and most of the time the saddest, heaviest drinking man in the corner. While the tone started optimistic with “‘Ol 55,” it quickly degrades to something much more somber and painful. Take the folkie, deeply wounded “I Hope That I Don’t Fall In Love With You” for instance, in which Waits lacks the courage to pick up an attractive woman at the bar, due to a heavy pain in his heart, or timidity, or raw fear, or probably a combination of all of these factors. He doesn’t get the girl, but he most certainly has a few stale cigarettes and full-bodied stouts to compensate.

With it’s gin-soaked piano, fleeting muted trumpet, and plodding standup bass, “Virginia Avenue’s” arrangement mostly reflects the early 20th century vibe that Waits was trying to evoke, while lyrically remaining squarely in post-Dylan world lyrically, with its picturesque descriptions, rain-drenched details. “There’s got to be some place that’s better than this / This life I’m leading’s driving me insane” Waits laments. Every moment of this album is designed to evoke a certain timeless mood, deeply existentialist in its isolation and disillusionment with life. Even the album art, designed by Cal Schenkel, dingy, dusty, with Waits in a dark barroom, piano, alcohol, and cigarettes ready-to-hand, helps to accomplish the overall tone that Waits has been trying to set with this musical project.

Dylan, without a doubt, is a crucial influence on this album. Before releasing this debut, Tom Waits used to spend his Monday nights playing Dylan covers at a bar called “The Troubadour” in Los Angeles, and sprinkling in some of the tunes that would compose Closing Time. “Old Shoes” plays like a revamped “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright” if the anti-hero of the song had at least half a heart, richly colored with acoustic guitars and capturing more of a 60s/70s sound than most of the rest of the album’s more 1920’s sensibility.

One can’t write about “Closing Time” without at least a mention of the album’s most beautiful single composition, the pathos-heavy “Grapefruit Moon.” The story goes that David Geffen was so floored by a Waits’ performance of the song at The Troubadour that Geffen made sure to have Waits signed to his Asylum Records within a month. Augmented with lush strings on top of the jazzy, balladeer piano, “Grapefruit Moon” reveals the depth of Waits’ genuine sentimentality at this stage of his artistic career, without crossing the line into overwrought bathos.

The album closes with what is almost an echo of Grapefruit moon, the gorgeous instrumental “Closing Time,” and one thinks about the parallel universe in which Waits continued to make albums like this one. Not a better or worse universe, simply a different one. If it’s true that an artist must master a particular craft and style before deconstructing it, Waits has revealed himself to be a true genius of the folky-jazzy piano ballad here, and there has been nobody better suited to the task of tearing down those walls in order to build the bluesy, jazzy, avant-garde, beautiful twisted nightmare that Waits’ music would ultimately become.

 

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