Sunday, August 23, 2015

Song of the Day #188 - Tom Waits - Swordfishtrombone

Now some say he's doing the obituary mambo!

Pitchfork just put up their top 200 songs of the 1980s, as always, a pretty solid list. I think they restricted themselves to songs that were actually released as singles this time? As a result, there aren't many deep cuts like this one, and people on /mu/ are complaining that it's too poptimist. The whole poptimism thing sorta interests me but I haven't really thought about it and I'm not really too sure where it even falls on the scale of "Cultural Marxism-esque Boogeyman" to "legitimate critical trend" so let's not worry about it.

I think this might actually be my favorite song of the 1980s but I didn't give it much thought and the 80s are probably the decade I listen to least overall. 90% of what I do is Talking Heads or other bands that sound a lot like the Talking Heads; most other trends of the decade don't interest me a whole lot. Tom Waits' career has persisted through hella years now, which gives his stuff a sort of timeless quality. I never got really into him, I mainly just listen to either this album or Rain Dogs when I want a taste, choices I made prolly entirely based on p4k's top 80s album list lol. When I want an even smaller taste, I just dive into this track, which feels like a perfect microcosm of the whole artist, and if it isn't I don't want to find out.

The lyrical content is like Pynchon introducing a side character - super condensed but comprehensive, spiraling out from an anecdote to a lesson that feels larger than you can comprehend. It feels conversational, but one of those weird conversations you get with a stranger where you feel a little confused and maybe a little scared, but on another level you're just impressed, almost stunned, by what's being said, how it's being said. And like... it's someone telling you a story, so you're imagining the story, but you're also imagining being told the story, and it's hard to say which is more interesting, and there's the interplay of them, and also the play of it all being a story - the closing lines drive this home, and the idea of the "yarn" being the only thing that kept him together - it really reminds me of when Slothrop becomes only a "concept" at the end of Gravity's Rainbow.

It reminds me of about a billion things, actually. The xylophone makes me think "skeleton" every time I hear it, like... when they play a skeleton's ribs like a xylophone. BUT, it also really makes me think of the music from Gargan Roo in FFIX, who knows why... The vocal part sounds a bit like Tom? Or maybe I was just playing the game at the time I was also listening to this album most. Or maybe it's because there's also an area in the game called Fossil Roo and I went skeleton -> fossil -> gargan. And maybe that explains why, for as long as I've been listening to him, Lakutis reminds me of this song? Cause he talks about skeletons a lot? But I think I've had that association before Lakutis had his skeleton obsession, so uhhh...

Really I think it's just that this song is so evocative that it drills down into me deep and taps into all sorts of tangentially related things, just because the feeling is so strong. It makes me think of Grim Fandango - the skeleton thing again, sure, but then also a sort of archetypal scene where someone sorta "shady" or "deranged" is explaining something to our protagonist via telling a story about someone, and there's an implied message to our protagonist in the story, and they've moved somewhere sort of out of the way, maybe even underground, to have this conversation, and the whole time it feels like they're sinking down deeper and deeper. Actually, I relate this sort of scene to FFIX too.

But really really this song has nothing to do with any of that, I just made that all up. It seems like it's more about the lack of a trombone in the song despite being in the title, and the unheard names of the present instruments (we get another name in "Flyswatter Banjo", also unheard). But if I thought about this more I'd just be making it up too. And that's great. That's what's so fun about the track. That's what I really love about "aesthetic thinking", it just opens things up, that's all it does. It's all about the fun of making meaning, about letting that juicy xylophone and bass deeper and deeper into you.

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