On his seventh studio album, Tom Waits seems restless, rambling, and ready for a change. Heartattack and Vine, unlike his previous albums, comes off as much more rooted in its time, in spite of any retro stylings, and that time is 1980. While there are a couple of standout songs, for the most part, the album doesn’t feel like Waits to me, and not because of a change in style. It just comes across as empty.
The title track opens the album, hinting at things to come, with low rumbling electric guitar and a pulsing rhythm before Tom starts his growl. Even at his most experimental to this point, it was always rooted in jazz or blues. But this song feels more like rock, playing with jazz and blues influences. And when he sings “you’ll never recognize yourself on Heartattack and Vine,” I can’t help but think how true that is. It does seem to be setting the stage for the more theatrical style he will adopt on future albums.
Tom’s career is pretty much defined by his love affair with saloons, bars, strip joints and skid row in general. While that is still here, it’s not the matter-of-fact or even romanticized version of it of his previous work. Here, it comes across as almost post apocalyptic. It’s urban decay, after a crash from high times, where there are tattered tuxedos and sequins scattered about amongst the rubble. It’s mostly not pretty. “Downtown” has an obnoxious cocaine vibe that makes me think of Wall Street yuppies tearing up the town with utter disregard for everyone else. It’s a far cry from the lonely sympathetic souls of Closing Time or the longing, restless working class heroes of The Heart of Saturday Night.
There are still a few standout tracks, though. Interestingly, it’s the ballads. Most notable among them is “Jersey Girl” which feels very much out of place here, with it’s Drifters inspired chorus of “shala lala” and summer boardwalk imagery. It’s one of his sweeter songs about simple, working class tenderness. And then there is the last song, “Ruby’s Arms” with piano and orchestration that could border on overly sentimental, but is somehow reigned in by the raspy Waits. It’s a simple little story about a guy, perhaps a soldier, leaving his love, for the last time, in the middle of the night. You’re not sure if he’s leaving because he just wants to or if he is somehow making a very difficult choice, but either way, he’s lamenting that he’ll never see her again as he goes off into the cold night, and when Tom’s voice cracks for a second in the last line, it’s the perfect tearful icing on this heartbreaker. It’s a great closing song, but overall, this is my least favorite album so far.