Bad As Me
Tom Waits is a big ol’ softie. He may project a gruff persona, he may howl with that gravel-gargling voice, and he may craft some of the most clangorous music imaginable, but the man never shies away from a weepy ballad. Instead, he understands the emotional power of schmaltz – in the unironic nostalgia of characters thumbing over dear memories and worn dreams until they’re creased and tattered like old photographs. “Martha” was a tearjerker on his 1973 debut Closing Time, but even after leaving that first singer-songwriter phase of his career, Waits continues to explore similar sentiment on “Time” and “That Feel” and “I’ll Shoot The Moon,” which rank among his best songs.
The stark contrast between these tenderhearted ballads and the junkheap arrangements of his most popular numbers – between his sharp bark and soft croon – enlivens so many of his albums, including his latest, Bad As Me. Nearly forty years after his debut album and nearly thirty since reinventing himself and his sound with Swordfishtrombones, Waits has reached a comfortable stage in his career where a strong album is no surprise. Bad As Me is predictable only insofar as it’s a typically fine set of songs. More crucially, it portrays Waits as a compulsive tinkerer, constantly toying with his sound, pushing his vocals in new directions, and expanding his musical vocabulary to cover early r&b and dusty c&w.
The album begins en route to Waits country, with the churning “Chicago” setting lyrics about exile and true love to unsteady locomotive rhythms. “Things will be better in Chicago,” Waits grunts. “We’ll leave all we’ve ever known for a place we’ve never seen.” It’s a blistering opener, implying real characters and establishing a story that plays out loosely as the album progresses. He revisits this sound and subject matter on calamitous songs like the modified blues “Raised Right Men” and the audacious title track, building to the rattletrap war song “Hell Broke Luce,” a military march whose stomping rhythms, sinister handclaps, and machine-gun report put it so over the top that it gains an appropriately outsize outrage.
Interspersed amid the glorious din of songs like “Hell Broke Luce” and “Get Lost,” slower numbers like “Pay Me” and “Back In The Crowd” reveal Waits’ unabashed romanticism as well as his capacity for delicate and direct melodies. Immediately following the swamp funk of the title track, “Kiss Me” sounds all the more private in its scenario and nonchalant in its seduction. The piano emanates from the next ballroom over, and Waits himself could be singing through a rickety radio held close to the ear, yet that curious depth of sound only reinforces the immediacy of his repeated request: “Kiss me like a stranger once again.”
Waits ends the album with a rendition of “Auld Lang Syne,” which is tacked onto the end of “New Year’s Eve” – a decision as risky and potentially over the top as the military arrangement of “Hell Broke Luce.” Yet, it’s an intensely poignant moment, one that shows Waits at his most achingly reflective. Bad As Me squares off against the past and hints at some mortal concern that may transcend character and get at something perhaps more personal to Waits.
In that regard, the most powerful moments come late in the album, with the inspired back-to-back sequencing of “Satisfied” and “Last Leaf.” On the former, Waits arm-wrestles with death as his band rowdily cheer him on. “Let my skull be a home for the mice,” he sings, then twists the song into a clever response to the Stones’ “(Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.” Keith Richards actually duets on “Last Leaf,” sung from a survivor’s perspective with only a few acoustic instruments lending lonely accompaniment.
The transition between the noisy “Satisfied” and the restrained “Last Leaf” is purposefully abrupt: As different as these songs may sound, they share a palpable dread as well as an obstinate defiance of death. “I’m the last leaf on the tree,” Waits sings as closing time nears. “The autumn took the rest, but they won’t take me.” Bad As Me may obsess over mortality, but the man isn’t going down without a fight. Even as he enters his 60s, Waits still sounds as lively and as cagey as ever, indulging both his most brazen and his most sentimental urges to upend all of our expectations.