Wharton's Weekly Albums #1: Week of December 10, 2018This entry inaugurates a weekly feature wherein I will recap the albums I listened to during my weekly commutes and give my brief thoughts about one of them.
*Duke Ellington & John Coltrane, Duke Ellington & John Coltrane
Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits, Bob Dylan
Bad As Me, Tom Waits
Metamodern Sounds in Country Music, Sturgill Simpson
Blood on the Tracks, Bob Dylan
Complete Riverside Recordings [Disc 1], Thelonious Monk
Illinois, Sufjan Stevens
*an asterisk indicates that this is my first listen to this album
Welcome to Wharton's Weekly Albums, my new weekly feature. My ambition here is to use this to track the albums I listen to during the roughly 70 minutes I spend commuting each weekday and write a brief comment on whatever strikes my fancy from them. The albums I listen to each week are semi-random, in the sense that they come off playlists that I curate through my own arcane criteria, but they are essentially random off of those playlists. Also, they are never Grateful Dead or Phish albums, so this column serves as an exploration of the other musical universes I visit.
This week there was a bit of a Duke Ellington theme, as his collaboration album with John Coltrane came up, as well as the first disc of Thelonious Monk's Complete Riverside Recordings, which contains the entirety of Thelonious Monk Plays Duke Ellington. Also Dylan is a presence, though neither of his entries did that much for me this week.
My thoughts last week were instead focused on Tom Waits, after I listened to Bad As Me for the first time in well over a year. I think it's more than reasonable now to be asking if Waits is the greatest singer-songwriter ever, period. Sure, he's up against big names like Dylan, Cohen, Mitchell, Simon, Newman, the list goes on. But I think he's got as strong a claim as as anyone else, based upon his wide range of work and the very high quality of so much of it. Waits has been a lounge pianoman, a scrapyard percussion hobo, a beat poet, a vaudeville balladeer, a boozed bruiser, a blues surrealist, a mambo king. He's been a songwriter covered by Rod Stewart, The Eagles, and Bruce Springsteen, a singer covering The Ramones, Kurt Weill, Snow White & the Seven Dwarfs, sea chanteys, Delta blues, Cole Porter. And his voice--or should I say voices? In one song, a howl from hell's junkyard, in another, a falsetto croon dripping colors like a bruised heart. No offense to the above-listed songwriters, but how many of them are the center of a musical universe that spans Harry Partch and Crystal Gayle? Captain Beefheart and Kronos Quartet? Roy Orbison and Primus? I feel like such a figure would be unimaginable, but for the fact of his actual existence.
I suppose one of the knocks on Waits is that his persona is inauthentic, that he's a schoolteacher's kid from San Diego with an act that, at its worst, romanticizes poverty, alcoholism, and mental illness by casting them as ingredients in the funky stew of American cool music. My position is that Waits is hardly the only person romanticizing pain and suffering to make art. There's nothing wrong with being conscious and deliberate about making art; it need not be a reflexive product of your life struggle, but can be undertaken through purposeful decisions aimed at specific objectives. After all, you don't discover Harry Partch or Captain Beefheart slumming around in bars. (I'd be remiss if I didn't point out here that Waits himself credits his relationship and marriage to artist and musician Kathleen Brennan with introducing him to the music of Beefheart and guiding him towards his more experimental 1980s sound. Behind every great man, etc.) There's many ways to make great art, and being a middle class kid from San Diego doesn't mean you can't do it. And then to do it with such a voraciously omnivorous appetite like Waits, that's what really sets him above others in my eyes. Combine that with tremendous consistency of quality (since 1983, Waits has had eight different albums place in the top 40 of the annual Village Voice Pazz & Jop poll, including five top ten finishes and three top five finishes), and I'm ready to call it: Tom Waits is the greatest singer-songwriter ever, period.