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Tom Waits exploring the underbelly of everything on ‘Franks Wild Years’

In 1982, Tom Waits produced the soundtrack for Francis Ford Coppola’s film One From The Heart. His then-record label, Elektra-Asylum, deemed his change in style disastrous and dropped him. He was picked up by Island Records and, as if to rub it in on his former label, he produced three more experimental pieces. They were all greeted with rightful acclaim. 

Tales of the “urban dispossessed” are Waits’ natural habitat, his jaunty hatted stout quaffing ways wouldn’t be at home anywhere else. Nobody captures the inherent weirdness of urban living quite like him. He skirts around the unpredictable corners of cityscapes and transposes what he finds in equally unpredictable songs. Frank’s haphazard adventures are equal parts surrealism and relatability, as Waits juxtaposes one with the other both in terms of music and mingling scope. 

For his Wild Years adventure, Waits chronicles the journey of a small-town boy to the big city of dashed dreams and a hatful of troubles. Therein a swirl of characters delineates the truth of the disparate lives of various denizens of the metropolitan demimonde. The picture created throughout this manic album is one of Waits sitting in the corner of some subterranean dive bar as a coterie of interesting souls wander in and play out their roles in the theatre of his twisted imagination.

Much like the experience of sitting in such a space, the album at hand is a difficult one to settle into. The “opera in two acts” of the album is an urban odyssey but, similarly, he seems to traverse every musical genre, instrument, stylising and structure as he goes along. Dissonance, soloing, modal techniques, bongos, banjos and purposeful mistakes all grace the same delirious musical canvas. This journey is the cause of the album’s triumphs and pitfalls, which are bound by the same tenet of deepening exploration of a singular theme. In other words, never has something so manic and meandering had such considered and unwavering intent behind it and never has the result teetered so finely on the brink of masterpiece and misfire. 

However, while this undoubted interest inherently results in an album that is well worth celebrating once you’ve washed it down a few times and settled in its miasma, the hangover of the mayhem means that Franks Wild Years is not a bar that even its most beloved patrons visit that often. Now that the dust scuffed up from the sticky dancefloor of the trilogy has finally settled, their wildness seems like a chapter that stands aside from the simplicity of his drunken balladeer early years. While records like Franks Wild Years are a welcome and necessary departure and development, full of kaleidoscopic wonder, it’s unchartered territory that is visited far less often than the romance of his core. 

Tom Waits once said, “A gentleman is someone who can play the accordion but doesn’t.” Franks Wild Years unsurprisingly features an accordion and it is a perfect symbol of the album’s paradoxical ways that this ungentlemanly conduct results in one of the records best moments on ‘I’ll Be Gone’. In the story of Waits’ back catalogue, this is how the album now resides: as a night out that lives long in the memory and spawned a slew of cracking anecdotes but when hindsight has had its final say, it’s not one you can be certain you enjoyed all that much and not one you’d be hoping to repeat.

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