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Tom Waits
Bad As Me
Anti- Records

It would be a misnomer to say Tom Waits is aging like a fine wine. Yeah, he gets better with age and other such platitudes, but likening his continuing evolution to the maturation of a barrel of whiskey is more apt—warm, rich, and full of earthy undertones that leave the imbiber reeling. Bad As Me, his first album of original material since 2004, exemplifies the analogy.

At age 61, the maestro of conjuring melody from junkyard clatter, sideshow soundscapes, and barstool serenades has released his most concise work to date. The 13 songs—16 on the deluxe edition—are direct and immediate as a punch to the gut, perhaps a reaction to the triple-album sprawl of Waits’s rarities compilation, Orphans: Brawlers, Bawlers, & Bastards.

More than ever before, the seminal Waits tips his hat to his own influences and peers. “Get Lost” sounds as though Waits has been mounted by the shade of Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, the ramshackle frenzy of brass clanging together like the finest of the bokor’s rave-ups, while the demented title track comes across as a nod to Nick Cave.

“Satisfied” is a rollicking blues number, a response to Muddy Waters’s “I Can’t Be Satisfied.” Waits blusters and brays about how he is going to be gratified, even if he has to break through your ribcage and rip contentment straight from your heart. The song takes on a bit of a meta quality thanks to the presence of Keith Richards on guitar and Waits name-checking both he and his songwriting partner: “Now Mr. Jagger and Mr. Richards/I will scratch where I been itchin’.” The song also showcases Waits’s knack for warping the grotesque into the poetic in the opening, “When I’m gone/Roll my vertebrae out like dice/Let my skull be a home for the mice/Let me bleach like the bones on a beach/I’ll be hard like a pit from a peach.” How fitting is it that the accompanying grainy black-and-white video features Waits lurching around like an epileptic zombie whose scenes were cut from Night of the Living Dead? The definition of danse macabre.

Richards returns to duet with Waits on “Last Leaf on the Tree.” The song continues the Waitsian tradition of pathos-eliciting balladry and is the most heartrending piece on the album, an ode to one’s own resilience, at once defiant and mournful. “Kiss Me,” with its despair masquerading as hope, is a self-referential nod to Waits’s own early years on the Asylum label, sounding like it could have hailed from Blue Valentine. And were Johnny Cash still around, the country waltz “Back in the Crowd” would surely have appeared on his next American Recording. It’s not all doom, though; there’s a fair helping of the glitter.

“Chicago” romanticizes the notion of forsaking stagnancy on a whim for the chance of a better life. One gets the impression Waits is of the mind that the act of plunging into the unknown is the objective, not merely the means of achieving it. It’s about the adventure, not the arrival. And it can’t be an accident that a song called “Chicago” is carried by Waits’s best Howlin’ Wolf impression.

Similarly, “Face to the Highway” conjures the mood of a long-time coming drive out of town, of heading down a deserted stretch of highway at 4 in the morning as an endless series of overpass lights stream by. But where “Chicago” lauds solidarity as a means to foster bravery and inspire bold decisions, “Face to the Highway” credits the narrator’s abandonment of another as necessary, that it is the road and freedom or a stilted existence in a prison cell that lies before him.

Bad As Me also builds on Waits’s ever-increasing dabbling with political matters, featuring no less than two finger-pointing ditties.

“Talking at the Same Time” bemoans the futility of American politics, the Sisyphian nature and influence of selfish interests increasingly defining the process. “We bailed out all the millionaires/They got the fruit/We got the rind” he hisses like a coiled snake in his smoothest falsetto yet. No more are his pipes shrill and alarming when tapping into a higher register. Well, not as alarming; Waits will always carry a sense of dread in his vocal cords, something that can’t help but make your heart flutter in unease. The melody and seesaw rhythm evoke the soundtrack to a 1940s film noir; one can envision a sleazy gumshoe chain-smoking in the neon blue haze of a no-tell motel somewhere in the Deep South.

The second political number, “Hell Broke Luce,” is the most challenging, and engaging, track on the record. Equal parts blues stomp, field holler, and military march, the pastiche is a dispatch from the frontlines of war. Waits doesn’t shy from addressing the innate absurdity of war, and makes no bones about depicting the horror in appropriately profane terms: “Listen to the general, every goddamn word/How many ways can you polish up a turd?” Rumor is, the song was inspired by Jeff Lucey, a U.S. Marine who returned to America from combat in Iraq only to commit suicide. The industrial rattle of melodies and instruments competing for dominance make for an unsettling listen, with Waits sounding like Old Scratch reversing the tides of damnation, unleashing his hordes on the world. Now it may be a coincidence, but an interrupting tuba solo amid the bedlam can’t help but be reminiscent Waits’s own “God’s Away on Business;” is the message here that when God’s away, the Devil will play?

Following such a tour of chaos, the morning-after feel of “New Year’s Eve” is a bit of a letdown. That being said, it’s not a poor song, depicting a dysfunctional family’s festivities as another year draws to close, but it fails to move with the same gravitas as the best Waits closers—“That Feel,” “Come on up to the House,” and “The Day After Tomorrow.” This boils down to personal taste, but bonus song “Tell Me”—with its pondering of the mundane and spaghetti western guitar lines—would have been a more suitable and rewarding capstone.

All told, the album straddles that delicate line of breaking new ground while acknowledging the past, making it Waits’s most accessible album in more than a decade.

– Cole Waterman