Tom Waits: “Bad as Me”

The first thing that struck me about it was the length. Bad as Me is the first collection of new material from Tom Waits in seven years; my copy, despite being the “deluxe” edition with three songs not on the album proper, is just over 50 minutes in duration. This follows on the heels of Orphans, a sprawling box set that filled every nook and cranny of it three discs, and Real Gone, a monumental album that felt just as expansive despite fitting onto a single CD. Seven years and you’ve got less than an hour of music to show for it, Tom? Say it isn’t so.

But actually, the brevity of this project is very much to the point of its charm, and to what makes it stand out as another weird and essential entry in the Waits catalog. I have long revered albums like Rain Dogs and Mule Variations for their sense of excess; Waits’ indulgence, on everything he’s recorded this side of Saturday Night, is part of what makes him great. But Bad as Me is his first album in a long while that never tempts you to press the skip button. Every note feels like it matters, and besides, there is a kinetic energy to this one that makes it next to impossible to turn off midstream. It is, in the most subtle yet substantive of ways, a new kind of Tom Waits album, and I love it for that.

The songs are all short and lean, but more importantly, they are warm and rich and deep. This is an inviting record; where Waits albums often receive comparisons to German art-song, or to Captain Beefheart, I’ve seen several critics invoke named like Ray Charles with this one. As well they should: This is a Tom Waits pop album, pure and simple. In some ways, it re-invents R&B in his image, just as Mule Variations did the blues—only here, all the excess is trimmed away and what we are left with is an album as nervy and as vital as any he has mustered.

The music is so urgent, in fact, that it seems to have started before the record even starts playing. The opening number, “Chicago,” comes out of the speakers like it’s already in progress, a locomotive banjo figure from Waits imitating the sound of a runaway train. Waits’ narrator jumps aboard, fleeing to a new town, a fresh start, perhaps even a different name; he hopes things will be better in Chicago, but his problem is one that a change of scenery can’t fix. The characters in these songs are all migrants and malcontents, but the problem is in their own soul, it seems. No midnight train is going to fix that.

That song introduces a kind of frayed energy that never flags, even on the slower numbers. There are a lot of upbeat songs here, including the sweaty R&B of “Get Lost”—its title a pun that works on several levels, and would have made a find alternative title to the entire LP—and “Raised Right Man,” which combines organ and gospel wailing into a straight-up garage banger. There is also a lot of Keith Richards on this record, which seems very relevant to the raucous energy of the thing. He plays guitar all over, duets on the song “Last Leaf,” and is mentioned by name on “Satisfied,” Waits’ uproarious rejoinder to a certain song from “Mr. Jagger and Mr. Richards.” That he would namedrop his own session guitarist is as good an indicator as any of the pure joy of this recording. Waits and his players are simply delighting in playing together.

Bad As Me is an album that seems, at first, to be more of a consolidation of Waits’ strengths than a breaking of new ground, but the album is deceptive in that way; he smuggles in his sense of adventure here, burying new sounds within familiar forms. The title song is a good example: It sounds at first like “Big in Japan” channeled through Bone Machine clatter, but its high-stepping refrain and rich percussion track gradually set it apart as its own kind of monster. Indeed, for as lean and to-the-point as these songs are, the arrangements are rich and bold; you’d probably opt for this kind of depth, too, if you had Marc Ribot, Charlie Musselwhite, and Dave Hidalgo as part of your studio team. I think you hear it best on the ballads; “Back in the Crowd” is a sort of mariachi-flavored number, and “Talking at the Same Time” masks all kinds of horns, ambient noise and studio clatter. The sophistication of the arrangements never gets in the way of the sheer visceral thrill of the songwriting, nor of Waits’ robust performances. (The spittle and stutter of Real Gone is really gone, but he continues to mine his own voice for new characters and personas, particularly in the higher register.)

For all its familiar touchstones, there is real boldness here, not just in the gleeful performances but in the writing. How else could one possibly take “Hell Broke Luce,” a maniacal and profane soundscape that immediately takes the award for most hellish thing Waits has ever recorded, and appropriately so; it might be the angriest and most pointed anti-war song in a decade. The closer, “New Years Eve,” is a bold in a different way, audaciously pilfering “Auld Lang Syne” for its chorus in a way that links it, as my colleague Thom Jurek noted, to the proud Waitsian tradition of “Tom Traubert’s Blues” and its “Waltzing Matilda” refrain.

Waits digs deep into familiar themes here, but the concision of the songs puts it in league with Bone Machine and Blood Money as one of his most conceptually focused records. I have seen some reviews say that all the songs are love songs; others, that the LP is obsessed with death. Both are right, I think, but I’d pan the camera back and say that, really, it’s an album about human need and desire, intrinsically linked with human frailty and depravity. Waits tweaks his vagabond persona to profound effect: If the album begins with a great migration and finds its mantra in “Get Lost,” its heart seems to lie in the loner’s lament of “Back in the Crowd,” the entertainer’s confession in “Pay Me (“they pay me not to come home”), and the illicit love song “Kiss Me” (“kiss me like a stranger”). Meanwhile, “Last Leaf” a duet with Richards, could be taken as an ode to mortality or an affirmation of Waits’ own showbiz longevity. He swears it’s just a song about a leaf on a tree.

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