Tom Waits may pay the mortgage as a musician, but he clearly has the heart of a junkman. With Waits, you get the sense that nothing ever truly gets thrown away—maybe pushed deeper back or buried beneath but never completely discarded or forgotten. On Bad As Me, Waits’ first collection of entirely new material since 2004’s clanging, scraping Real Gone, the once inebriated lounge act turned beatboxing junkman picks through the scrap metal and tire piles of his nearly 40-year career and shows that a shine can be salvaged from even the rustiest pieces.
The hard-times exodus “Chicago” chaotically chugs into the station on frantic Blood Money horns and in-and-out guitars, complete with a maniacal conductor’s “All aboard!” “Leave all we’ve ever known for a place we’ve never seen,” growls Waits, “maybe things will be better in Chicago.” It’s not much for a couple to pin their hopes on, but it’s about the best that most of the down-on-their-luck inhabitants of Bad As Me can scrounge up. Troubled times continue on the tiptoeing “Talking at the Same Time”, Waits delivering a grim outlook with a surprisingly smooth falsetto that never hints at cracking like on previous efforts. Swinging rocker “Get Lost” recycles the demented, hiccupping yelp of Orphans brawler “Lie to Me” on its playful calls for reckless abandon: “Time it don’t mean nothing/Money means even less/Don’t bring nothing, baby… I wanna go get lost.”
Listeners will be thankful that Waits largely avoids the guttural vocal excavations that grew tiresome on 2009’s Glitter and Doom Live. Here, he takes his fair turns at singing, as opposed to unearthing, and delivers some of his more satisfying softer moments in recent memory. David Hidalgo (Los Lobos) adds Spanish Tinge flourishes to the gorgeous whisper of a ballad “Back in the Crowd”, Waits’ low, rugged croon imbuing this lover’s plea to be loved or let go (“put back in the crowd”) with a tender frankness. Waits hasn’t delivered anything quite this accessible since “Hold On” off 1999’s Mule Variations. “Kiss Me” tickles the familiar “Blue Valentines” and “Burma-Shave” spots on the ivories behind a lover’s seductive imploring to “kiss me like a stranger once again.” There’s an “Alice”-like stillness in its instrumental details, and the opening image (“The fire’s dying out/All the embers have been spent”) perfectly captures the idea of a love that has lost its original glow.
It would hardly be a proper dig through Waits’ junkyard past without the requisite bangers and clangers that have been staples since 1983’s seminal Swordfishtrombones. The debauched lead single, “Bad As Me”, drives on the same brand of brash guitars, pounding percussion, and catalog-style lyrics (“You’re the head on the spear/You’re the nail on the cross/You’re the fly in my beer/You’re the key that got lost”) that fueled Mule Variations’ “Big in Japan”. The madcap, “Big Black Mariah”-esque romp of playfully titled “Satisfied” is made all the more delectable when you realize longtime friend Keith Richards is on guitar, the final punch line coming when Waits proclaims, “Mr. Jagger and Mr. Richards will scratch where I’ve been itching.” In a more serious vein pumps the jarring, wartime march of “Hell Broke Luce”. From the echoed, barked orders of “left, right, left” to the sampled sounds of machine gun fire, it’s a psychotic, nightmarish stomp and the most affecting political statement Waits has made since 1983’s soft-spoken “Soldier’s Things”.
Other notable tracks find Waits, or his characters, feeling the cool chill of life’s autumn and contemplating the changes to come. Waits is joined by Richards on the choruses of the spare, delicate ballad “Last Leaf”, each sounding exceedingly frail as they sing about the ambivalence of being that final leaf to fall from a tree. While there is the thankfulness for having lasted so long, at the same time, there is a loneliness and sense of having been forgotten as others have come and gone. Waits’ bare and ragged voice waltzes with Franks-era accordion on “Pay Me”, the tale of an old-time stage performer who considers life’s final act: “And I’ll wear boots instead of high heels/And the next stage that I am on, it will have wheels.” Part of what Waits has always done is shine a light—be it a stage light, street lamp, or neon sign—on those, like this aging performer, who we might otherwise pass over without a second thought. Yes, we like to “stomp, whistle, and scream” and “dance with a soldier’s glee” (whatever that entails exactly), but Waits also knows that we need to cry in our beer, howl at the moon, and occasionally have our lives dignified by a stranger sparing a moment to listen to our sad stories.
Going back to the well is generally frowned upon, but given the depth of Waits’ well and the crispness and vitality drawn from it on Bad As Me, it hardly seems to warrant criticism that he has chosen to rummage through his past and revisit what he never had the heart, or mind, to throw away. Waits will always find different ways to bang on the same old thing or new ways to tell a familiar story. Bad As Me begins on a train and ends in a bar on New Year’s Eve. I’ll gladly take that journey with Tom Waits every time.
Essential Tracks: “Back in the Crowd”, “Talking at the Same Time”, and “Hell Broke Luce”