Album Review: Tom Waits, ‘Bad as Me’
Tom Waits’ latest album, Bad as Me, is available for streaming until Friday, October 19 at badasme.com. The new album from ANTI- Records isn’t officially out until Monday, October 24, but subscribers to his email newsletter were privy to a code that unlocked a weeklong preview. Each email subscriber was also given five “friend” codes to share. Fans of the 61-year-old raspy blues and vaudeville singer can also visit badasme.com to request an invite.
Bad as Me marks the first original studio album from the musician in seven years. 2009’s Glitter and Doom Live was a double-disc set of live performances from Waits’ previous tour. The album satiated hardcore fans with amazing performances that brought new, ominous depths to songs like “Singapore” and a raw sadness to his darker tracks like “Dirt in the Ground.” Despite being a critical darling and a song-making workhorse, Waits has never broken into the mainstream, and Glitter failed to chart.
Waits’ music career spans four decades, and in that time he’s become known for his storytelling (listen to “Children’s Story” for a taste of what his own kids probably grew up with), and the cast of characters he creates in his songs. He is the musical equivalent of Flannery O’Connor (something he himself may suspect, as is evidenced by his song “A Good Man is Hard to Find”)—a mill of southern gothic characters and situations: depression-era train-riding transients, booze hounds and sailors, prisoners and escaped slaves. One could never accuse Waits of being fashionable—he’s had the voice of a 70-year-old smoker and rock-eater since ’75’s Nighthawks at the Diner and the moral compass and viewpoint of a self-made western pioneer. He is a cowboy and a farmer and a traveler and hobo all rolled into one.
But even this maverick that dangles on the edge of sanity and fiction is malleable—his albums tend to mark distinct phases. His early years were spent wallowing in the obscurity of late-night ballads and odes to grave-shift waitresses who served him burnt coffee for a nickel in Closing Time and The Heart of Saturday Night. The 80s saw the midnight bum get a used tuxedo and an orchestral flair in Heart Attack and Vine, which features “Jersey Girl,” a song Bruce Springsteen later covered. In ’83 things got weird, dark and violent with Swordfishtrombones; Waits’ life underwent a fundamental change at this time—he cut ties with his old musical self and became the artist we know today. From then on his characters were gamblers and sailors—Rain Dogs being the best example, and one of Johnny Depp’s favorite albums. An aggressively freewheeling sense of the carnival appeared in Frank’s Wild Years, along with the theme of a person tripping down the rabbit hole, gripping religion while going to the devil, which reappeared in Blood Money.
Even though Bad as Me is an original album, it could be considered a “best of.” Unlike his previous works, this one does not mark a sea change—instead it is a collection of Tom Waits’ elements. “Chicago” is the traveler’s song—a chaotic burlesque tune about looking for greener pastures. “Raised Right Men” features an angry keyboard and Waits’ typical menacing percussion as he laments the lack of good people—with a title that could sum up half of O’Connor’s stories.
Wais is an old-styled man, and while his depression-era sentiments could never be trendsetting, in “Talking at the Same Time” Waits becomes self-aware that history has come full circle and caught up with him. “Get a job/save your money… everyone knows umbrellas cost more in the rain … it’s hard times for some/for others its sweet/somebody makes money when there’s blood in the streets.” For years his songs have built a bridge to the past, to the vagrants and losers of the post-market crash and global depression—and the bridge has finally connected to present day, to the severe recession that’s left hundreds of thousands in the poor house, and a select few richer than ever. “We bailed out all the billionaires/they got the fruit/we got the rind” are poignant words that sting harder than ever with hundreds protesting at Occupy Wall Street.
“Talking at the Same Time” is a standout of Bad as Me for its relevancy, but Waits ventures further into the present with “Hell Broke Luce,” a song from the standpoint of a solider in an unnamed war—though the lyrics drop telling hints: “A Humvee mechanic put his Kevlar on wrong/I guarantee he’ll meet up with a suicide bomb.” As in his previous anti-war song, “Road to Peace,” about the Israel-Palestine conflict, Waits pulls no punches in his anger: “how the hell is it the ones responsible for this mess/ got their sorry asses stapled to a goddamn desk?”
The rage and resentment erodes to sadness in “Satisfied” and “Last Leaf,” songs about death and loneliness, respectively. Long time listeners know every line of Waits’ lyrics carries heavy meaning, his songs tinged with metaphors, and “Last Leaf” is a great example of this: “I’m the last leaf on the tree/the autumn took the rest but they won’t take me.” The aging Joan Didion recently made similar statements—like many near the end, she no longer fears dying, but not dying.
The eponymous “Bad as Me” sees Waits with all his scheming bravado, where he plays devil’s advocate of sorts: “You’re the nail in the cross… You’re the key that got lost…You’re the same kind of bad as me.” It’s hard to tell whether Waits is trying to convince us to cross over to the dark side, or point out our common human flaws, the evil in every one of us. The track is an uneasy bedfellow amongst the victims’ anthems of “Talking at the Same Time” and “Hell Broke Luce,” but in the end, I don’t think it’s a nihilistic message of “we’re all going to hell in a hand basket anyway,” but a message of shared guilt for the ills of society—even the ills that affect us personally.
We all make our own beds, and we must lie in them. In Bad as Me, Waits shows us what his bed is made of: carnival rides, cheap coffee, a gurgling throat that belts out indignation, lonesomeness, and even a bit of cheekiness. He is a playful devil, now playing with tools of his own making.
This article was originally published on AllMediaNY.com
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