by Trevor Fraser
We await a new Tom Waits album with bated breath mainly because, in light of the centuries-old hard-living carny character he's played since he hit the scene in 1973, it's difficult to convince us he's really a clean-and-sober gent of 61. But he's survived his caricature once again, and so we meet his latest release with a celebratory toast.
Here's to Bad as Me: an album of songs.
That may sound like faint praise, but those who've followed his experiments over the last decade know exactly why it's deserved. Unlike his last four studio recordings (six, if you think of Orphans as three albums), there is no concept here, no throughline, no atonal soundscapes that can only be grasped in complete, immersive listening experiences. Each track of Bad as Me can be pulled out and enjoyed on its own melodic merits, the first album since Mule Variations to offer such a sampling.
The songs are still the explorations of early and lost musical styles he and his songwriting partner/wife Kathleen Brennan have been churning out since he was with Island Records. (ANTI-, the alt label of Brett Gurewitz's Epitaph records and, incidentally, home to Orlando's Solillaquists of Sound, is probably his most fitting match ever.) Starting with the driving strains of “Chicago,” this album pulls you up to vagabond fires and into theaters used as David Lynch sets.
Several songs are for the party. The aforementioned “Chicago” (an heir to “Hang on St. Christopher”), “Get Lost,” “Satisfied” and especially the standout title track work best when they're loud. A few are mournful ballads. (“Pay Me” yields my favorite lyric of Americana wisdom: “The only way down from the gallows is to swing.”) And the rest are relegated to that surreal emotion Waits so often invokes.
Oh, and then there's “Hell Broke Luce,” a metal stomp that utilizes gunfire as percussion and creates the mental hell of a PTSD sufferer (and would probably be best kept away from actual PTSD sufferers). His anti-war voice remains one of the best, most direct and most under-appreciated.
“Hell Broke Luce” is also one of the three songs to feature Keith Richards. He appears as an open inside joke on “Satisfied” and lending vocals on “Last Leaf,” a move so right it sounds almost improvised.
Quality instrumentation comes from those specialized musicians he seems to have such a keen ear for, including his son Casey, who plays drums on eight of the 13 tracks (and one of the extra three you get if you buy the deluxe edition). Les Claypool, Flea and Charlie Musselwhite all make cameos.
If there's anything off about Bad as Me, it's Waits' seeming search to sound like a parody of himself. The truly excellent “Kiss Me” includes a record's hiss, as if we needed a reminder that this kind of songwriting is from a more analog era. In “New Year's Eve,” the final track, he samples “Auld Lang Syne,” a melody he's come close to stealing before. This time, it feels like he just couldn't think of any way around it. (Personally, I think he already wrote the new New Year's anthem with “Come On Up to the House.”)
I should caution that this shouldn't be your introduction to Tom Waits. That should be either Small Change or Blue Valentine. Nor is this album grandiose enough for him to go out on. So we'll keep our fingers crossed for his health (which, again, is fine), and keep drinking with Bad as Me mixed happily into the rotation.