Review: Tom Waits – Bad As Me

The gravel-throated master returns with more magic than we anticipated.

Iann Robinsonby Iann Robinson

All great mediums have a storyteller. Film, literature, plays, TV, there’s always one entity you can think of that opens a door into the world you knew so that you can truly know it. In music that man is Tom Waits who has, over his years, risen from singer to nearly mystical shaman. Waits is the dark man outside. He’s standing behind a tree smoking a cigarette and watching the world unfold before him. 

Waits is a jazzman, a singer/songwriter, a rock legend and easily the coolest motherfucker walking the planet. Bad As Me, Waits’ newest studio offering, is another step forward. More focused than Orphans: Brawlers, Bawlers and Bastards, Bad As Me plays like Waits’ taking stock of all the music he’s given us. Everything that is part of Waits is on this album; all the various styles he’s used come through with wonderful results.

“Chicago”, the album’s opener, is a straight blues jam, though done in the Waits’ style Instead of a slow blues drawl, Waits makes the music frenetic, a stumbling confluence of off-time rhythms, plucking horns and random guitars. The vocals bring the blues-glue to “Chicago”. That dynamic rasp that is uniquely Tom Waits shreds through lyrics about things being better in Chicago in a way that feels like a promise you’d make to an unconvinced girlfriend while you were running to catch a train. It’s gonna be okay baby, just trust me and get on the damn train.

Ever wonder how a beer soaked speakeasy would sound if put to music? That’s where “Raised Right Men” comes in, crashing through the door fighting two guys but never spilling a drop of whiskey. This is a tough song that spits in your eye with a jarring organ playing against a hammering bass line. The rhythm of “Raised Right Men” comes across like people throwing boxes full of drum equipment from random heights. Through it all Waits vocals remain a gravel anchor, the man behind the story that spent his life gargling hot gravel and broken glass. Both “Chicago” and “Raise Right Men” remind me of the Nighthawks At The Diner era Waits meeting headlong with Bone Machine.

Then it stops. Waits takes the gravel out of his voice and becomes something between a crooner and a jazz vocalist with his best days behind him. “Everybody’s Talking At The Same Time” takes a slow surf guitar, plays it behind a jazz piano and tosses in some smoky blues horns. Again Waits takes elements that absolutely should not work and makes them fit by smashing them together. Leaving those jagged edges and dangerous points is what makes a less experimental song like this still exciting. 

Everything in Waits’ music is about imagery. I don’t mean simple imagery of connecting lyrics to a song and describing an event but actually forcing your mind to create it’s own imagery. The music is so hard to categorize that your brain has to do something so it creates where you think you the song belongs. A bar fight, a circus, a drunk tank, a lonely hotel during winter, an industrial town on its last legs. Waits music forces you to become part of it and fill in your own blanks. That’s why he’s more of a storyteller than just a singer. He transports you away to a new place to see an old world in a new light.

“Get Lost” sounds like a fifties retro rocker if sung by demons on cough syrup. The swing is fifties, but the music is another amalgam of psycho drums and random bits of music all coming in, doing their thing and then exiting stage left. Musically it’s Blood Money era Waits but vocally it’s a new hybrid of the swing vocals he’s used on other albums. Again he reinvents himself by mutating his past. “Face The Highway” is the first time we get some Heart Attack And Vine or Heart Of Saturday Night era Waits. An introspective number, there’s a sense of a traveling man on “Face The Highway”. To me it’s a man who can’t be what those in his life want him to be so he just leaves. Of course, that’s me, others will see something entirely different and within those blurred lines the genius of Tom Waits resides.

Waits’ real ability for the straight story comes with “Pay Me”. A heartbreaker told from the point of view of a man or woman who lives for the stage. Waits clues us into when the song takes place. It could be Vaudeville performer watching the era die, or the tale of an elderly actor remembering his life. To me “Pay Me” sounds like winter, cold and isolated with a lone fire burning against a hollow wind. It’s up there with Queen’s “The Show Must Go On” as far as genius songs about the end of a performer’s life.

“Back In The Crowd” is the vulnerable Tom Waits from albums like Alice or Blue Valentine. It’s a hauntingly beautiful song about the end of a love affair. Unlike most love songs that feature complaining or crying or whining, this rings more of a lover seeing the writing on the wall and asking to be set free, an emotional trip much more powerful than your average bad pop ballad. The title track is where Waits goes completely off the deep end. “Bad Like Me” is all over the place, a controlled chaos of instruments playing whatever the hell they want while Waits growls and barks through it. The song itself comes across to me like a bookend to Black Sabbath’s “NIB”. Where “NIB” told the tale of the Devil giving up Hell for love, this is the song when Satan realizes the chick he’s with is just as evil as he ever was.

Of all the genius going on with Bad As Me, my absolute favorite track is “Last Leaf On The Tree”. This is Waits exposing our human frailties in the same vein as “Christmas Card From A Hooker In Minneapolis” or “I Hope That I Don’t Fall In Love With You”. “Last Leaf On The Tree” is exactly what it claims to be, the story of the very last leaf on tree. Within that parable is space to put whatever you need to in it. A man who can’t stand his life anymore, somebody dying who has decided to move on, lovers who understand that it’s time to end it. If you have ever felt lost or alone, if you have any real humanity in you then “Last Leaf On The Tree” will tear out your heart and make your eyes burn with tears.

Can’t keep the party down though so here comes “Hell Breaks Luce” an anti-war ditty that sounds like Waits is singing in front of two giants playing patty cake while a third giant claps like an idiot. The chaos of Bad As Me wraps up with “New Year’s Eve”, a mellow outro that comes off like a romantic Italian sea shanty. It makes no sense on the record but absolutely works as the final track.

Bad As Me is another musical experience from a man who has never turned out an inferior record. As pretentious as it sounds, this album contains a certain amount of magic. An intangible quality that seeps into your soul and consumes you the way no other album will. All those bits left out by other genres, the harder emotions, the less simplified look at our own humanity, that’s what Tom Waits specializes in and that is exactly what Bad As Me delivers. Call off the dogs; the album of the year has arrived.