Review Summary: Music to drink and bemoan lost love to.
Even with the benefit of considerable hindsight, it remains difficult to see how an album such as Closing Time could have been followed by albums such as Rain Dogs and Bone Machine. The jazz-orientated arrangements which adorn the material here certainly do not point in the direction of experimentation with beat-boxing and sampled effects. This album is a very different breed. When you play this album, you can almost taste the whiskey, almost feel the pain of a love lost, almost hear the sound of being told to leave by an impatient bartender.
Much of the album revolves around the piano skills and compositions of Mr Waits himself. The actual music is predominantly chord-based and is a clear backdrop to the vocal forefront. Evidently, Tom Waits also realised the limitations of his piano work, which led to a high reduction on the amount of piano playing on his later albums. However, the songs here all benefit from piano. Specifically ballads, such as the mournful "Martha", the introduction clearly indicates the sorrow of the song and succeeds in conveying it well before Waits even opens his mouth. In comparison, the guitar led "Old Shoes (And Picture Postcards) introduces a waltz-style number as a break after several piano-led songs. The intermission works well and allows a different side to Waits' songwriting shine through. Although it would be overkill to say that this is a stylistically varied album, that is not necessarily a bad thing and gives the album the consistency it needs to support a skilled wordsmith.
Despite the relaxed atmosphere provided by the instrumentation on the album, the lyrics are clearly intended to be the primary focus here. Unlike the music, over his career, Wait's lyrical topics have varied relatively little in comparison. The themes of this album revolve around tales of characters who we can imagine Waits has created using himself as a template. Characters such as Tom Frost from "Martha" are obviously intended to reference him, yet in the song, he claims "it's been forty years or more now, Martha please recall". This indicates a character of at least fifty years of age and Waits was no older than twenty-three at the time of writing. The lyrical style used by Waits is supported by his vocal style, which hints heavily at his savage, whiskey-drenched growls which would dominate later albums. Despite the fact that Tom Waits was very much living the lifestyle he was writing about, this was not yet having a great impact on his voice. Due to this, out of his canon, this is where his cleanest vocals are found, even if they are reminiscent of many alcohol-fueled nights sat screaming at a piano.
Something which may not appear obvious to the listener without attention is the atmosphere which permeates the album. The noise in the background is a result of the live way the album was laid down. This is undoubtedly intentional, as the atmosphere is assisted by Waits counting in several songs very audibly. The idea is clearly that you are in a deserted bar and Waits and his band are playing his songs to you. When considered, the concept is rather brilliant in that it perfectly suits the persona of Waits and his bar-dog image. It may also be viewed as a homage to his roots as a down and out piano man who would sit in bars, playing to the patrons with only a bottle of whiskey for company.
Taking into account the fact that this is a debut album, the level of maturity in the songwriting is stunning. Play this to an uneducated listener and they may well believe they are listening to an old crooner who has spent a lifetime honing his craft and hammering songs into shape. The structures appear relatively fluid, yet never fall into the trap of being overlong or stretched compositions. The sound of the songs easily allows the listener to believe they were all eased from a piano and tempered with Waits' fine lyrics almost simultaneously. The strings on the album are arranged tastefully, instead of smothering the songs and the horns are allowed room to breathe without ever becoming overbearing. The songs are clearly understood well by the man who wrote them.