[I finally got this one on vinyl today, so let's take a trip down memory lane to 2013, when I wrote this.]
I came to Tom Waits late in life, but like Paul on the road to Damascus, the scales fell from my eyes and I preach Waits' gospel every chance I get. A friend in college was a Waits disciple too, and always used to play his stuff for me without winning me over. His music seemed willfully obtuse, his voice abrasive, and none of it really fit with other artists I liked. My girlfriend in grad school tried to win my soul for the bard of the gutter, and I didn't crack until she loaned me a copy of Heartattack and Vine.
For some reason, it just clicked with me, which is funny considering that is not one of his more highly rated records. Allmusic only gives it three stars out of five, the second lowest score for any of his albums, and much lower than those that come right after. Robert Christgau's B grade review is chock full of faint praise. Released in 1980, it is a transitional album marking Waits' shift from his jazzbo lounge singer persona of the 1970s to his avant garde wildman stage that began in earnest with 1983's revolutionary Swordfishtrombones. Up until this point Waits' jazz piano laid the foundation, afterward it would be unorthodox percussion. On Heartattack and Vine, it's the blues. I think people don't like this record for the same reason I didn't like Waits for so long: it doesn't fit pre-existing categories. Maybe that's why it was the one to hook me, it had a quality I lacking in the other stuff I'd heard.
The bluesy nature of the proceedings is apparent when the title track kicks of the record in raucous fashion. A cutting, drunkenly lumbering guitar staggers into the room, soon accompanied by one of Waits' signature growls. He uses this to best effect on one of his all time best lines "There ain't no devil, just God when he's drunk." When I heard this song, his sandpaper and Marlboros voice suddenly made sense to me the way that Howlin' Wolf's similarly unorthodox vocal stylings always had. Waits' singing is really better suited to blues-based material, and here his voice finally gets the right platform.
Other songs on the record mine the depths of the blues, especially the caustic "Downtown" and perverted "Mr. Siegal." However, it's a couple of weepy ballads that make this album so great. The first is "Jersey Girl," a song that has a lot of meaning for me. I was listening to Waits a lot around the time I met the Jersey girl who would later be my wife. When Waits says "Nothing else matters in this whole wide world, when you're in love with a Jersey girl" my heart swells. Beyond my own subjective biases, it really is a fetching ballad, and expresses, without being maudlin, the insane magic of falling in love. When my wife and I slow-danced to this at our wedding it was probably the happiest I felt that day.
The other ballad is the monumental "On the Nickel," whose title refers to 5th Street in LA (hence "nickel.") This is skid row, and Waits is singing a lullaby to the men who live there. The accompanying strings are lush, like something off of a Disney soundtrack, his voice whisperingly tender at the start. Halfway through it gets low and fearsomely gutteral, as if he is channeling the pain and broken hopes of the men for whom he sings. By the end if you are not moved, you have no heart.
None of the other songs can match "Heartattack and Vine," "Jersey Girl," or "On the Nickel," but a record with three awe-inspiring songs counts as a classic in my book. It might not fit the image Waits fans or critics have of him, which is all the more reason to admire it as one of the most confounding works of a charmingly confounding artist.