Swordfishtrombones: groundbreaking instrumentation catches Tom Waits' signature sound
Swordfishtrombones cover art by Michael A. Russ
Released in 1983, Swordfishtrombones became the first self-produced album by Tom Waits that not only established the signature sound of his "junkyard orchestra" which would define all of his following works but also set the prime example for raw experimental rock.
When the musical trends of the 1980s prompted many alternative musicians to shift their focus to the newborn processor-generated sound effects, Swordfishtrombones was the starting point of a new path for alternative culture, conceptualized in the revolutionary sound design that only involved live instruments.
Searching for a new approach to his arrangements, which until then rarely went beyond a strings-supported rock setting, Tom Waits turned to the richest collection of musical instruments from around the world compiled by Emil Richards—a famous percussionist and producer of many Hollywood soundtracks.
In addition to the rich percussion section of marimba, bell plate, dabuki drum, African talking drum, and boobams, the album features electric guitars, organs, trombones, bagpipes, and the absolute rarity that is the glass armonica. Clearly audible in Rainbirds, the glass armonica was invented back in the Baroque era and was rumored to cause mental health damage.
Listen to Tom Waits' Rainbirds where the glass armonica is used in the opening:
On Swordfishtrombones, not only did the new style introduced different arrangements, now more reminiscent of a soundtrack rather than a standard rock record, but also saw the album's lyrics entering a more avant-garde territory.
Tom Waits himself characterizes Swordfishtrombones as one of the first of his records rooted in more extreme honesty:
"I like to think I got more angry with "Swordfish" . . . More fractured. I sorta reached an impasse, y’know. Lookin’ back I can see I had governors on a lotta the things in my head. Had to shake ’em off. Uh, be a little more honest with myself. I sorta provided a commentary on things in my old songs now I kinda escape into the song more. More extreme I guess."
Listen to Underground, the opening track of Tom Waits' Swordfishtrombones:
Although having seen a relatively strong popular success upon its release in 1983, peaking at number 167 on the Billboard Pop Albums and number 62 on UK Albums Chart, Swordfishtrombones does not possess many definitive production traits that permeated the sound design of the 1980s. By choosing not to employ digital synthesizers and effect processors that are now so reflective of that particular decade, Tom Waits managed to create a staple 80s record so timeless, it sounds like it could have been made yesterday.