Review Summary: The third instalment of Tom Waits’ ‘80s trilogy continues in the same vein as Swordfishtrombones and Rain Dogs, but fails to reach the same musical heights, although it manages to stand well enough on its own.
The 80’s trilogy, as it is sometimes called, was a monumental achievement for Tom Waits. His new approach to songwriting was immensely innovative, and strengthened the atmosphere of his world of underdogs and castaways. Swordfishtrombones introduced the new style, Rain Dogs brought it to perfection. Where does this leave Franks Wild Years?
Truth be told, it comes off as a bit of an afterthought. It is a great album, but few regard it with the same reverence as they do the other two masterpieces. As a part of a trilogy, it stands as a weak album in comparison. Note, if you please, that I wrote ‘in comparison’. You can hardly fault Tom Waits for not putting out a third brilliant masterpiece in a row. Franks is a wonderful album in its own right, and has its fair share of gems. Just don’t expect it to be as good as Rain Dogs. Tom Waits is at his best when he experiments with his sound. It’s as if the albums lose some of their punch when he becomes too comfortable in a certain style of writing his material. Several of his albums suffer from this: Foreign Affairs, Blue Valentine, Blood Money and this album for instance (the latter two to a lesser degree). He is a consistently great artist, but no artist should be stuck in the same style for too long, especially not one as inherently experimental and curious as Tom Waits. Mule Variations is the exception that proves the rule, standing as the most successful Waits album that looks back instead of forwards.
Now, on to the sounds of the album. It’s quite easy to see Franks Wild Years as an extension of Swordfishtrombones and Rain Dogs. You’ll hear most of the aspects of Tom Waits’ broad-spectrum assault weapon (as Tom Moon described his voice) on the album. Added to his famous growl, he now sings through a megaphone on some tracks (Opener “Hang On Saint Christopher” for one), for an even more distorted sound. These songs were written for a play like the songs on “Alice” and “Blood Money”. And like those albums, Franks Wild Years plays just fine without a play to accompany it. It does stand on its own quite well.
Franks Wild Years as an album may not be indispensable, but some of the songs are. Listen to “I’ll Be Gone” a frantic, accordion-driven tale and one of the most engaging songs on the album. The lyrics are as entertaining as the song itself. “Temptation” showcases Tom Waits’ howling falsetto, or as he likes to call it “his Prince voice”. It’s a terrific ballad and easily one of the albums strong points. “Hang On Saint Christopher” kicks off the album nicely with distorted vocals, as if through a megaphone, over a horn-driven backing. Several songs are worthwhile, but the album is arguably too favored towards ballads.
It is simply bogged down by moments of boredom. The tracks “Innocent When You Dream”, a heart-warming ballad, and “Straight to the Top”, a swing-band Frank Sinatra parody, are both played in two different versions on the album. The versions are different, but it’s still not necessary to repeat them, especially in the case of “Straight to the Top” since it isn’t really that good of a song. Other than that it’s simply a case of less potent song writing than on the two previous albums. As an album, it stands well on its own and contains a lot of magnificent songs, but it simply doesn’t compare to Swordfishtrombones or Rain Dogs.