Tom Waits, Heartattack and Vine
The period at the end of a bleary-eyed sentence
The apex of Waits’s Island Records run is his most self-consciously degenerate, trading slinky jazz for distorted guitar and swampy beats. “Heartattack and Vine” and “Downtown” find him on familiar turf, but he’s moved from sitting on the curb to stomping through the gutter. Waits hasn’t ditched his wise-cracking barfly persona so much as subsumed it into a larger cast of characters. The blue-collar romantic of “Jersey Girl” isn’t a doomed sucker, just a working stiff taking inspiration from the corny conviction of a doo-wop “sha la la.” (Waits’s original is, not surprisingly, more internal and less triumphalist than Bruce Springsteen’s better-known cover.) It’s doubtful Waits knew it would be three years until his next album, but Heartattack still has the feel of a summing-up, the period at the end of a bleary-eyed sentence. It’s a climax and a prelude at the same time.