Waits’ recent album Bad As Me was his 22nd in a career stretching back nearly 40 years, and this budget-priced slipcased compendium of his first five releases offers an easily affordable opportunity to revisit where it all began. In truth, there isn’t anything particularly remarkable about the folky troubadour of 1973’s Closing Time, the record’s most celebrated tracks arguably more familiar from covers by The Eagles (Ol’ 55) and Tim Buckley (Martha).
A persona of sorts begins to take shape on the following year’s The Heart Of Saturday Night, its title track a blue collar paean to letting loose at the weekend (shades of Springsteen) and Diamonds On My Windshield presenting Waits as a jazzy beat poet. 1975’s Nighthawks At The Diner is a mock live album, Waits performing with a trio in front of a small group of friends in the studio (“Welcome to Raphael’s Silver Cloud Lounge…”), the storyteller in full flow on Putnam County and Nighthawk Postcards.
The following year’s Small Change offers a schizophrenic Waits: the jokey junkyard cabaret of The Piano Has Been Drinking, Step Right Up and the title track at odds with the lush orchestration of Tom Traubert’s Blues. The style-hopping on the following year’s Foreign Affairs doesn’t work as well; the Bette Midler duet I Never Talk To Strangers is too cartoon-like, though Potter’s Field and Burma Shave are among his best “story” songs.