Tom Waits – Bad As Me (Music Review)

Bad As Me cover

Tom Waits - Bad As Me

“Whatever they told you about me, well all of it’s true!” crows Tom Waits, somehow bringing a childish enthusiasm to his trademarked blues growl. Bad As Me is an album celebrating Waits’ image, from the strangely iconic photos in the lyric booklet to the songs that seem to pay homage to his entire career. The “brawlers, bawlers, and bastards” are all here: The title track is a declaration of his aggressively individualistic and impish leanings, but it works partly because the beautiful sentiments on songs like “New Year’s Eve” also come from the heart. On “Kiss Me”, Waits even seems to be going back decades to his quirky lounge singer persona.

In fact, about the only thing Bad As Me is missing is consistency. The transitions between the different songs can be so jarring that this feels less coherent as an album than the recent Orphans collection. Or compare this to his last studio album, Real Gone, which found Waits seemingly trying to sing serious songs about serious problems. Sure, that album had beat-boxing experiments, but it seemed intent on putting a human face in front of the music. That’s almost forgotten here, with “Face To The Highway” and “New Year’s Eve” being the only times that he seems interested in putting the character before the performance.

Despite all that, though, each song is excellent, and this finds Waits back in the classic form that Real Gone lacked. This is also Waits’ strongest album musically since Mule Variations, if not before, with the energy and richness to do justice to his voice. These songs are full of distinctive Waitsian touches. The characters have names like “Flat Nose George” and “Nimrod Bodfish”, and he tosses off lines like “the only way down from the gallows is to swing” with a sincerity that belies their unusual nature.

“Hell Broke Luce” gains distinction as the loudest Tom Waits track ever, but this noise is completely justified in an angry war story. Waits has a history of preachy anti-war songs, such as “Day After Tomorrow” and “Road To Peace”, but he finds the perfect approach here. As a soldier, the narrator’s anger seems natural, and his initial complaints (a hellish land and idiotic superiors) are in line with traditional pro-war stories. Waits’ most absurd lyrics fit right in here, and as fortunes crumble for the narrator and his friends, the listener will agree about the futility of war without needing a lecture.

On the other hand, “Last Leaf” is Waits at his most quiet and contemplative, considering his aging rock star status as if he’s a leaf that won’t let go of the tree. The song doesn’t make this sound glamorous or noteworthy, but just presents it as the only life the leaf knows. It’s beautiful but inconclusive, as the leaf also sounds a bit dried-up and lonely. (This song features very appropriate backing vocals from Keith Richards, who is in his most vital form in years playing guitar for the album’s more rocking tracks.)

Maybe the best way to summarize Bad As Me is to say that I have to stop myself from writing paragraphs about every song on it. If this album feels inconsistent at times, it’s because the idea of “Tom Waits” now encompasses such wide territory. Even this whole album can’t quite encompass all his sides (no spoken-word stories? Really?), but whichever of his many personas you prefer, you’ll find great examples of it here. The consistency is found not in the styles he chooses, but in the song quality.

Waits releases good albums regularly, but the career-defining ones only appear about once a decade. Bad As Me is in that rare category.

Grade: A


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