Every Tom Waits Song is an email newsletter covering just that, in alphabetical order. Find more info here and sign up to get it sent straight to your inbox:
Is there a Tom Waits album closer better than “Come On Up to the House"? It’s a great song, of course, and also works wonderfully as a gospel-belting summation of the 15 tracks that came before. But is it the best?
To answer that question, I decided to rank all Waits’s album closers. Not by how good the song is per se, but by how well I think it works to wrap up the album in question.
“Blue Valentines,” for instance, is a fine song – I wrote about it here – but loses points for not being either a grand conclusion or some sort of final twist. It could have appeared anywhere else on the record and not lost anything.
On the flip side, I don’t love “The Ghosts of Saturday Night” nor do I love the album it closes, The Heart of Saturday Night. But a mediocre song aptly sums up all the mediocre music that preceded it (okay, I’m exaggerating, it’s not that bad). So it gets a boost.
Going through all these final tracks, I noticed two trends:
Tom likes to close albums with instrumentals. I’m not even counting the soundtracks here, but Closing Time, Swordfishtrombones, The Black Rider, and Alice all close with wordless pieces.
Tom likes to close albums with title tracks. Or rather, almost title tracks. “Blue Valentines” (with “s”) closes Blue Valentine (no “s”). Or flip it: “Foreign Affair” (no “s”) closes Foreign Affairs (“s”). “The Ghosts of Saturday Night” closes The Heart of Saturday Night.
So below, my objective, unarguable ranking of Tom Waits album closers from worst to best. Just kidding - please argue with ‘em! Jump in the comments. Which Tom Waits songs do you think work the best (and worst) as the final statement of their albums?
17. "Rainbirds" (instrumental) - Swordfishtrombones
“Rainbirds” is fine, but one of Tom’s greatest albums, and an enormous genre shift this would end up defining the second part of his career, deserved better than this jazzy little nothing to conclude it.
16. "Foreign Affair" - Foreign Affairs
I mean, I guess a meandering orchestral crooner that feels longer than it is works perfectly to summarize an album with all those same features. But I still can’t get behind it.
15. "A Good Man Is Hard to Find" - Blood Money
I love Blood Money, but it ends on one of its least-memorable tracks. The album should end with Waits hollering about starving in the belly of a whale or everything going to hell rather than something that sounds like a Black Rider outtake.
14. "Blue Valentines" - Blue Valentine
It feels like it’s only the closer because it’s the (almost) title track. “Somewhere” might have been a more interesting final track. Or, if you don’t wanna go out on a cover, how about “Christmas Card From A Hooker In Minneapolis”?
13. "Ruby's Arms" - Heartattack and Vine
I love this song, but it’s in that “Blue Valentines” mold in that it doesn’t need to be the closer. He does literally sing “I say goodbye” multiple times though, so it works in a literal sense.
12. "Innocent When You Dream (78)" - Franks Wild Years
I like the idea here: Replay one of the album’s biggest and best numbers, but faded, like you’re hearing it on a scratchy 78 (hence the subtitle). I’m not sure he needed to redo the whole song though. 30 seconds and a fade-out would have achieved the same effect without feeling redundant to a track you already heard.
11. "Carnival" (instrumental) - The Black Rider
I debated leaving The Black Rider off this ranking since it’s so soundtrack-y, but, like Alice and Blood Money which also initially stemmed from stage plays – and unlike One from the Heart or Night on Earth – it is billed as an album. This 76-second instrumental isn’t much, but on an album with plenty of other instrumentals, I guess it works as a perfectly adequate conclusion.
10. “The Ghosts of Saturday Night (After Hours at Napoleone's Pizza House)" - The Heart of Saturday Night
As I said in the intro, not a song I love, but does a solid job putting a bow on the vibe of this album.
9. "I Can't Wait to Get Off Work (And See My Baby on Montgomery Avenue)" - Small Change
Any song on Small Change would make a good album closer. “Bad Liver and a Broken Heart”? You can picture it. “Invitation to the Blues”? Sure. “Step Right Up”? Why not end on a little carnival-barking. "I Can't Wait to Get Off Work” works as well as any of ‘em.
8. "New Year's Eve" - Bad as Me
Will this be the final song of Tom’s final record? I hope not…but it isn’t looking good. The “Auld Lang Syne” bits recalls Tom’s use of “Waltzing Mathilda” in “Tom Traubert’s Blues.” A New Year’s Eve sadsack classic. Did he ever find Irving?
7. "Closing Time" (instrumental) - Closing Time
Guest contributor Mitchell Stirling wrote about this one for us a few weeks back. I don’t want to like instrumental closers – gimme another song, man! – but this one works really well. Not something I’d listen to on its own, and would be odd hearing it with the album on shuffle, but after you’ve taken the journey from "Ol' '55" to “Grapefruit Moon,” “Closing Time” lets you down easy.
6. "Spare Parts II and Closing" - Nighthawks at the Diner
Not my favorite album as I’ve noted, but exactly the way this live-in-a-jazz-club style collection should end, with Waits just joking to the in-studio audience to wrap things up. He even makes a few terrible puns about heading out. “I think I'm gonna plant you now and I'm gonna dig you later…Make like a bakery truck and haul buns…Make like a hockey player and get the puck out of here.”
5. "That Feel" - Bone Machine
Look, if you get Keith Richards to join you on your closing track, you’re already headed in the right direction. A big dumb bellow-along with not that many lyrics but a whole lot of feeling. It sounds like they wrote one-quarter of a song and then got drunk and decided to just wing the rest in the studio. Perfect energy to conclude Bone Machine.
4. "Day After Tomorrow" - Real Gone
Often, I want a song that sums up the album’s sound. In this case though, "Day After Tomorrow" works so well because it pushes against everything that came before. After one of the loudest, most distorted and aggressive albums of his career, Waits brings it all back home with a sorrowful and slow protest ballad.
3. "Fawn" (Instrumental) - Alice
The best of Tom’s instrumental closers, “Fawn” features a scratchy-as-hell violin soaring high above Larry Taylor’s bass drone and Waits playing the occasional chord on piano. A perfectly melancholy and surreal end to Alice.
2. "Come On Up to the House" - Mule Variations
One mark of how well this song works as an album closer is that it loses a bit of magic when taken out of that specific context. It’s been covered many times, and many of them are quite good, but the song just hits different when it strikes after you’ve just listened to all of Mule Variations.
1. "Anywhere I Lay My Head" - Rain Dogs
Is there a Tom Waits album closer better than “Come On Up to the House"? We finally get our answer: Yes! But just one. It’s one of Tom’s best songs one on of Tom’s best albums and fits perfectly to conclude, bringing in some gospel organ to go out on another big loud belt-along.