Daily Song Study

Tom Waits – Step Right Up

In songs on June 21, 2011 at 12:46 pm

I’m generally of the opinion that a good song is one that can be sung in many different ways by many different artists. But there are a few exceptions to that, and this is one of them.



I can’t in my wildest dreams imagine anyone performing this song other than Tom Waits. This is from his 1976 masterpiece album Small Change, and unlike most records that came out that year, the track sounds like it could have been recorded yesterday.

It could be argued that this is less a song than a stunt, a stream-of-consciousness piece of performance art set to a beat. But one of the hallmarks of visionary songwriting is pushing the definition of what constitutes a song, and pedantic categorization anxiety is never useful in appreciating any form of art, musical or otherwise. Whatever this is, it’s well done.

  1. I cannot give an unbiased opinion much less critique of this. Small Change is one of the few absolutely perfect albums out there. It is Van Gogh-like in its masterpieceness. The only critique i can possibly come up with for this tracks is that it sounds even better in the context of the album, and i certainly can understand how someone looking for something simply with a catchy tune to hum night not be satisfied by this. But the fact remains, this tracks is brilliant. It’s a huckster set to music. The character comes out beyond the idea of a song… in this entire album, characters emerge, flesh and blood were once were songs. The songs bring them forth, birthing them from the void and when the track end back they go.

    While Wait’s later work is much more orchestrally adventurous and more out there, experimenting further, this album none the less remains as perfect as anything he has ever done. It nailed what it set out to do and is in my top ten album list, hands down.

    fap fappity fappity fap.

  2. Agreed that it works particularly well in the context of the album, but I first heard this ages ago on the radio separate from any context and was blown away even at a tender adolescent age.

    The question that has always dogged me is how much of this is improv and how much is prearranged. There are obvious spots where he’s waiting for a particular bit to come around before starting another section, and parts where the band seems to be making alterations to fit the direction of the words. Being the interview sphinx that Waits is, I’d imagine he’s never answered that question straight.

  3. […] the song is just as interesting. A sort of spooky gypsy tune done in a style as reminiscent of Tom Waits as of Burnett, it is one of the weirder pieces that Krauss has likely ever sung, and she pulls it […]

  4. […] Earlier we looked at Tom Waits’ opening period during the 1970s, one which was primarily defined by a mix of blues, jazz, and beatnik sensibility. As his career progressed through the ’80s and ’90s, he began to incorporate other elements as well, including a peculiar kind of trashcan groove exemplified in this tune, released in 2006 as part of his Orphans album, which collected assorted songs that he hadn’t released on any previous albums for whatever reason. […]

  5. […] Then there are the lyrics and highly original phrasing that wouldn’t be out of place on a Tom Waits record (and predate Waits’ debut by 7 years). Observe also the vocal delivery, rough around […]

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