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Music / Swordfishtrombones

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There's a world going on, underground. They're alive, they're awake, while the rest of world is asleep.

Swordfishtrombones is the eighth studio album by Tom Waits, released in 1983 through Island Records. In many ways "Swordfishtrombones" was a New Sound Album. It was the first album he produced himself and the first to mark a radical change in style. He left his "drunk jazzy crooner/pianist image" from his previous seven albums and moved to a more Avant-Garde Music style, inspired by carnival music and Captain Beefheart. Seeing that Waits was finally starting to get some success as a singer this was quite a bold move. In fact, the album was already recorded in 1982, but took Waits 13 months before he found a label interested in releasing it.

Swordfishtrombones is well regarded as one of Waits' best albums, thanks to fan favorites such as "Underground", "In The Neighborhood" and "Frank's Wild Years".


Side One

  1. "Underground" (1:58)
  2. "Shore Leave" (4:12)
  3. "Dave the Butcher" (2:15)
  4. "Johnsburg, Illinois" (1:30)
  5. "16 Shells from a Thirty-Ought-Six" (4:30)
  6. "Town With No Cheer" (4:22)
  7. "In the Neighborhood" (3:04)

Side Two

  1. "Just Another Sucker on the Vine" (1:42)
  2. "Frank's Wild Years" (1:50)
  3. "Swordfishtrombone" (3:00)
  4. "Down, Down, Down" (2:10)
  5. "Soldier's Things" (3:15)
  6. "Gin Soaked Boy" (2:20)
  7. "Trouble's Braids" (1:18)
  8. "Rainbirds" (3:05)

Tropers Braids

  • The Alcoholic: "Gin Soaked Boy".
    How could you crawl so low with some gin-soaked boy that you don't know?
    I come home last night full a filth of Old Crow
  • Alliterative Title: "Down Down Down".
  • Avant-Garde Music: This album marked Waits's move into avantgarde music, exemplified by the very first track on the album:
    There's a world going on UNDERGROUND
    They're alive, they're awake
    While the rest of the world is asleep
  • Beneath the Earth: "Underground".
    All the roots hang down, swing from town to town
    They are marching around down under your boots
    All the trucks unload beyond the gopher holes
    There's a world going on underground
  • Black Comedy: "Frank's Wild Years".
    Well Frank settled down in the Valley
    And hung his wild years on a nail that he drove through his wife's forehead
  • Break Up Song: "Gin Soaked Boy".
    You been lying to me
    How could you crawl so low with some gin-soaked boy that you don't know?
  • Careful with That Axe:
    • "Shore Leave" features Waits squealing the title in a high pitched voice near the end.
    • He lets out another at the end of "Swordfishtrombone".
  • Continuity Nod: "Just Another Sucker on the Vine" reminds fans of the previous album Heartattack and Vine (1980). The song "Frank's Wild Years" already predates the future album Franks Wild Years (1987).
  • Cradle of Loneliness: "Shore Leave":
    And I'm so far away from home
    And I miss my baby so
    I can't make it by myself
    I love you so
  • Crapsack World / Wretched Hive: "In The Neighborhood".
    Well Big Mambo's kicking his old grey hound
    And the kids can't get ice cream 'cause the market burned down
    And the newspaper sleeping bags blow down the lane
    And that goddamn flatbed's got me pinned in again
    In the neighborhood
    In the neighborhood
    In the neighborhood
  • Creepy Circus Music: The instrumental "Dave the Butcher".
  • Deliberately Monochrome: The album cover is in black-and-white, with an added colour tint effect.
  • Dying Town: "A Town With No Cheer", which describes a town between Melbourne and Adelaide, abandoned after the railway no longer needed watering stops.
  • Easy Road to Hell: "Down Down Down" about a liar and cheater who went "solid down to Hell".
  • Face on the Cover: Waits is featured on the cover, to the right.
  • Franchise Codifier: Waits had been known as a jazzy pianist and singer-songwriter in the 1970s, but this album established the eccentric, darkly theatrical sound that came to define his output from then on.
  • Ghost Town: See Dying Town.
  • Instrumental: "Dave the Butcher", "Just Another Sucker on the Vine" and "Rainbirds".
  • Last Note Nightmare: "Johnsburg, Illinois". The first minute of the short song is a tender piano piece about a sweetheart, but towards the end of the song there is a missed note, and then a couple; the tune eventually grows into a series of dissonances that make for a somewhat creepy ending.
  • Live Album: "Johnsburg, Illinois" is a live track.
  • Lost in Translation: "Down, Down, Down" has a different translation in Japanese -> 地獄に落ちた男の歌 - (Song of a Man Who Fell to Hell)
  • Lyrical Dissonance: "Frank's Wild Years", a jazzy recitation about a rather dark tale. "In the Neighourhood" is an uplifting and cheery song, yet describes a lot of depressing situations.
  • Miniscule Rocking: "Underground", "Johnsburg, Illinois", "Just Another Sucker on the Vine", "Frank's Wild Years" and "Trouble Braids" are all under two minutes long.
  • Mundane Made Awesome: "Soldier's Things", about the inside of a box full of possessions of a soldier.
  • New Sound Album: This record surprised many listeners, as Waits moved into more experimental territories, a style he would never leave throughout the rest of his career.
  • No Animals Were Harmed: Subverted three times:
    • "In The Neighborhood":
      Well Big Mambo's kicking his old grey hound
    • "16 Shells From A Thirty-Ought-Six":
      And I kicked that mule to the top of the tree
    • "Franks Wild Years", where a chihuahua "that had some kind of skin disease and was totally blind" is described. Frank later burns down his house and the final line of the song is:
      Never could stand that dog
  • One-Man Song: "Dave the Butcher" and "Gin Soaked Boy".
  • One-Word Title: "Underground", "Swordfishtrombones", and "Rainbirds".
  • The Power of Love: "Johnsburg, Illinois".
    She's my only true love
    She's all that I think of
  • Product Placement:
    • "16 Shells From A Thirty Oughts Six":
      I tore out the buckets from a Red Corvette
    • "Frank's Wild Years":
      [...] picked up a couple Mickey's Big Mouths
      Drank 'em in the car on his way to the Shell station
  • Pyromaniac: Frank in "Frank's Wild Years", who burns down his house and everyone and everything in it.
  • Shout-Out: The album cover shows Waits in the presence of actor Angelo Rossitto, best known as the black haired dwarf actor in Freaks (1932), and Lee Kolima, who appeared in Cannonball Run II (1984).
  • Spiritual Successor: Swordfishtrombones forms a trilogy along with Rain Dogs (1985) and Franks Wild Years (1987), centred around the fictional Frank O'Brien.
  • Spoken Word in Music: "Frank's Wild Years" has Waits tell a story about Frank O' Brien, with some jazzy instrumentation in the background.
  • Title Track: None, though the track "Swordfishtrombone" comes close with the only difference being that the song title and Album Title Drop within it are singular, while the album title is in plural.
    He went and took up with a Salvation Army Band girl who played dirty water on a swordfishtrombone
  • Unreliable Narrator: "Swordfishtrombone" tells a tale about a man and his weird adventures, though in the end Waits sings:
    And if you think that you can tell a bigger tale
    I swear to God you'd have to tell a lie