Academic journal article Music Theory Online

Text and Temporality: Toward an Understanding of Rhythmic Irregularities in the Music of Tom Waits

Academic journal article Music Theory Online

Text and Temporality: Toward an Understanding of Rhythmic Irregularities in the Music of Tom Waits

Article excerpt

[1.1] American singer-songwriter Tom Waits opens his 2004 song "Green Grass" with this quatrain:

Lay your head where my heart used to be

Hold the earth above me

Lay down in the green grass

Remember when you loved me

The four lines--each a directive--draw the listener into the song as they unfurl a rambling narrative packed with evocative imagery, wistful sorrow, and intimacy. It is a bold opening, and it encapsulates much of what is distinctive about Waits: the subject matter is dark and perplexing, and the poetic structure is irregular and a bit playful. The lines have 9, 6, 6, and 7 syllables, respectively. Their rhyme scheme plays out in two layers: a literal aaba pattern ("be," "me," "grass," "me"), and an elongated near-rhyme pattern in lines two and four ("above me" and "loved me"). The use of "lay" to open lines 1 and 3 combines with the elongated near rhymes of lines 2 and 4 to suggest a binary division of the quatrain. Waits's lyrics frequently display provocative poetic elements such as these; this paper explores how he supports them musically in three songs, beginning with "Green Grass." As one might expect, poetic structures are reflected through form, motivic construction, musical rhymes, variations in the textual deployment and vocal production, shifts in tempo and instrumentation, and the like. What may be less expected is the peculiar temporal flow of Waits's songs. Accentual and rhythmic shifts not only accommodate the syllabic irregularities of his lyrics, but they also project meaning onto the text through the larger phrasal and hypermetrical structures they form, structures that are frequently uneven and variable. Typically, these irregular structures appear in the context of a very regular surface quadruple meter. It is this curious way that temporal regularity and irregularity interact with poetic meaning, prosody, and musical style in Waits's music--his subtly transgressive approach to rhythm and phrasing--that drives the present study.

[1.2] I have chosen to focus on three songs that encapsulate important elements of Waits's style: "Green Grass," "Black Wings," and "Dead and Lovely." Each offers analytic rewards that help to frame this study not just as an analysis of three particular songs, but also as an introduction to Waits's treatment of text and temporality more broadly. Waits scholarship to date has focused primarily on matters of lyrics, vocal style, and biography, for good reason: his catalog offers a captivating and often surprising body of work filled with unusual narratives (as in the opening of "Green Grass" above) and stylistic allusions.(1) At his core, Waits is a storyteller, and in that vein his lyrics and music evoke storytelling musical traditions, particularly blues and country. Yet, in a broader sense, his music defies easy categorization; in fact, one of the most striking things about Waits's songs is the wide variety of American genres(2) they draw upon, ranging from ballads to blues to Tin Pan Alley to vaudeville to rock to avant-garde experimentalism. While some songs explicitly evoke the conventions of a single genre, many reference multiple musical conventions in their performative, instrumental, timbral, formal, rhythmic, and phrase qualities. Despite this range of song types, there are recurring expressive positions that create a thread of commonality through his music: loneliness, anger, bleakness, melancholy, absurdity, sentimentality, and nostalgia. His songs are populated by "wanderers who roam throughout the world, dreaming and escaping" (Kessel 2009, 64), including soldiers, sailors, criminals, circus performers, prostitutes, and folks who are down on their luck, unlucky in love, or lonely; they are often situated in diners, trains, and train and bus stations. For the present study I will refer to Waits as both composer and performer, but it is important to note that Kathleen Brennan, Waits's wife, is credited as a co-writer and co-producer for many of his songs from 1985 to the present. …

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