Album Review: Tom Waits “The Heart of Saturday Night” (1974)


The Heart of Saturday Night was the second album by American singer-songwriter Tom Waits. Released in 1974, this album saw Waits begin to branch out musically from the more L.A. singer-songwriter style he explored on his first album Closing Time to a more jazzy/bluesy style, or what I like to describe as sleazy nightclub jazz. Waits take on jazz as seen on this album was a style which he would perfect throughout the seventies and that would bring him notoriety amongst music critics and fans alike.

The jazz/blues sound of The Heart of Saturday Night is characterized mainly by Waits developing gravelly voice, something that would become one of his biggest assets and musical trademarks, although there is still a lighter texture to his voice on this record in comparison to his later records. His voice combines nicely with jazz arrangements that include piano, double bass, drums, horns and even strings on the more somber pop tracks. Ultimately it is this combination that gives this album that seedy nightclub/backstreet ally way feel that conveys to the listener scenes of drunks, hookers and bohemians, or should I say the outcasts of American society. One track “The Heart of Saturday Night” even contains sound effects of a car horn and traffic. It is this setting which Waits also addresses in the lyrics with the songs in a way appearing like little poetic depictions of the world of late night bars and city streets. “Depot, depot what am I doing here”, “looking for the heart of Saturday night”, and “tight-slacked clad girls on the graveyard shift” are just some of the lyrical examples which Waits conveys to the listener to describe the underbelly of 1970s America. Jack Kerouac and the beatniks are also an influence on the material on this album, with Waits on a couple of tracks “Diamonds on My Windshield” and “Ghosts of Saturday Night” not singing but instead reciting the verses backed by jazzy accompaniments. The music on this album and indeed later releases would be heavily influenced by beatniks such as Kerouac, with Waits especially taken by the idea of fusing spoken word and jazz together.

Although the overall jazz feel of this album flows quite nicely, there are a few tracks which standout for me on here. Opening track “New Coat of Paint” is very jazzy and a contender for best song on the album, while it showcases Waits ability on the piano with a style of playing reminiscent of Fats Domino. “San Diego Serenade” is a beautiful ballad which captures Waits at his most soulful, while “Fumblin with the Blues” is probably the bluesiest track on the album. Finally album closer “Drunk on the Moon” is a souring jazz song which features delicate piano playing and a mid-song free jazz jam in what is definitely a fitting song to end the album.

This album set the tone for the rest of the decade for Waits during his beatnik/jazz period, although it is stylistically very different from his more experimental work of the 80s and 90s, in fact almost unrecognizable if you compare the two periods. Music critics seemingly also warmed to this album, with Rolling Stone magazine placing it at number 339 on its list of the top 500 albums of all time, Waits highest placing on that list. Musically it is a very nice listen highlighting his interest in the beat generation and jazz, as well as showcasing his ability as a singer, songwriter, and arranger. In conclusion, then, The Heart of Saturday Night is well worth a night time listen with wine in hand, and is a good place to start for those who want to get into this great musician.


– Sam


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