Rain Dogs is the ninth album released by Tom Waits (1985). Thematically, the album focuses on the mental illnesses of the passers by in New York. Waits envisages the struggles that people from all walks of life experience. Waits jumps between genres confidently, from the free jazz of “Midtown” to the blues-driven “Union Square”. His voice evolves from persona to persona as he performs the songs in character. The album plays out like a short story collection. Waits’ characters suffer with loneliness, rejection and guilt, amongst other harmful issues. These topics are relatable to people of all ages, giving the listener a connection with the characters. But how does Waits present sequences of events that spiral into mental health decline in Rain Dogs?
album opens with ‘Singapore’, a tale about a captain setting
rules for new sailors. They must commit all their time to their job.
Even marriage is prohibited: ‘When you hear that steeple bell, you
must say goodbye to me’. The instrumentation is rustic: Marc Ribot
plays a cartoony guitar, percussion is played on a chest of drawers
and a marimba huffs and puffs over the track like a steam train. This
piece almost passes for a Disney villain song. The underlying
seriousness of pressures in the workplace are still relevant today;
these pressures lead to numerous mental health issues.
Polka’ puts the spotlight on an unhappy man who complains about his
family members. Waits was influenced by his parents’ difficult
relationships with family members. In ‘Cemetery Polka’, family
members argue over money. Meanwhile, one suffers from lung disease.
This song highlights how family relationships can have a negative
impact on mental health.
Full of Bourbon’ portrays a taxi driver who drives his customer,
Edna to a cruise line. Edna is a murderer. She pays the driver $100
to keep her secret. The driver makes statements about himself. ‘I’ve
been drinking from a broken cup’ and ‘I’ve been stepping on the
devil’s tail’. These statements portray his guilt just for being
involved. Self blame is common for those who feel worthless.
threads death throughout the songs as a theme, the first being ‘Tango
Til’ They’re Sore’, a song about a suicidal man making plans
for how he wants his funeral to be. He plans to jump from a window,
using the imagery of confetti to make himself feel celebrated. In
reality, he knows no-one will turn up to the funeral. He asks anyone
who will listen to “paint shadows on the pews” and claims that
the only affordable flowers are daisies. The instrumentation has a
clumsiness that gives the impression that the protagonist is an
alcoholic. Turning to alcohol numbs his loneliness until it turns
into desperation. The song title refers to a tango. The timelessness
of this dance can be compared to the timelessness of mental health.
This style of dance expresses passion, a passion that this suicidal
man has never experienced himself.
song relating to death is “Big Black Mariah”. Waits tells the
story of a policeman picking up a drug addict. The drug addict, who
has overdosed on Benzedrine, has passed out in a pile of sugarcane.
Whether he is dead or as good as is open to interpretation. Waits
leaves the listener wondering whether the protagonist will end up in
jail or in a coffin. Benzedrine, a form of amphetamine, can be used
to reduce anxiety and insomnia (common side effects of mental health
issues). The protagonist knows both prison and death will be an
escape from the depressive life he is living.
recurring outside-observer character provides the voice for ‘Clap
Hands’ and the spoken word
piece, “9th and Hennepin”. A man
in Minneapolis watches a woman turn to prostitution after her lover
leaves. Her depression has spiraled out of control, leading to a
potential drug addiction. She lacks acceptance and needs to feel
wanted. The song closes as the protagonist reflects on the fact that
he doesn’t know the woman. We are always making assumptions and
drawing our own conclusions. “I’ve seen it all through the yellow
windows of the evening train”. The alienated protagonist is trying
to see optimism in his life by reassuring himself that others have it
these hellish vignettes, Waits integrates calm instrumentation,
including the country ballad, ‘Blind Love’ and the spectacular
‘Time’. On the latter, Waits describes scenes of life from an
after-death perspective. The protagonists have mental health issues
that put up barriers, preventing them from any form of enjoyment. The
verses flow like the protagonists lives, flashing before their eyes.
Waits ends each verse with the chorus: “It’s time that you love”,
pointing out that these characters (along with the listener) should
find time to do things they really love while they still can.
theme of rejection is pivotal to “Downtown Train”. Waits brings
radio audiences into his music by promoting the album with a more
conventional single. This song shows a man being let down by his
love. You can feel Waits’ voice tremble, showing loss
of confidence. This song is relatable to anyone whose mental health
issues have stemmed from rejection.
album closes with the theatrical “Anywhere I Lay My Head”. People
laugh at the protagonist, but he lets their comments wash over him,
crooning ‘I don’t need anyone, because I’ve learned to be
alone’. Accepting loneliness concludes the album on a note of
sadness. This is highlighted as a marching band starts playing,
creating the image of a funeral. This plays like rolling credits,
concluding the album on a tragically powerful note.
Dogs is relevant to this day.
Waits’ theme of swept-under-the-rug mental health issues pushes
lyrical boundaries. His soundscapes open a new world that has
entertained generations of listeners. The album has since been
awarded NME’s best album of 1985 and a spot in the ‘1001 albums
to hear before you die’ book.