Tom Waits is one of the finest lyricists, colloquial without being bucolic, reflective without self-pity, poetic without forcing a rhyme or an image. He succeeds where other “storytellers”--Harry Chapin, Billy Joel--flounder. Where others abuse tired qualifiers and moldy tropes that make their tales little more than cold soapy water, Waits had the instincts of a good short story writer, a John Cheever, a Flannery O'Conner, a Nelson Algren.
A character, a journey, a timeline, telling and terse details, just the right number of qualifiers, wisdom to not fill in all the spaces nor to betray his mood and artistry with a convenient “moral.” At his best, he conveys emotions of all sorts--rage, joy, sorrow, regret, celebration, lust--and allows the listener to experience them fully, with minimal manipulation. What has occurred during his many mini-sagas, for both the protagonist and listener, remains a mystery; the meaning and the lesson to be learned is deferred except, perhaps, to resonate in the interstices of one's own memories that the story isn't over yet.
Joyous or at randomized saturation of despair, melancholy, or anger, one goes to work, to the next town, to the cemetery to respect, going on with what we're doing because that's what we do. Still, the sense, somehow, with all the pain, disappointments, and mundane travails that one is richer, wiser, or wizened, for all the acute sensations a memorable time awards us, That makes him an artist. A fine fellow.