Anticipation has been rising since Tom Waits hinted a few months ago that new music was on the way. It’s been seven years since the gravelly-voiced miscreant released his last studio album, 2004’s Real Gone. In the meantime he’s done a bit of acting, compiled and released a 3-disc collection of rarities (2006’s Orphans), tour a couple of times, released a live album (2009’s Glitter And Doom Live), been inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame and written some poetry.
Now, at age 61, and 38 years after his first album (1973’s Closing Time) we have Bad As Me.
As usual, Waits has written and produced the album with his wife, Kathleen Brennan. The core band used on the tracks consists of son Casey Waits on drums, long-time collaborator Marc Ribot on guitar, Charlie Musselwhite on harmonica and a revolving cast of bass players including Flea, Les Claypool, James Whiton, Zack Sumner, Larry Taylor and Marcus Shelby. Keyboards are handled either by Waits himself or former Sir Douglas Quintet member Augie Meyers. Along with Ribot, the guitar duties are handled by Larry Taylor, Keith Richards, David Hidalgo (of Los Lobos) and Waits. An occasional horn section rounds out the cast.
The album kicks off with Chicago, a frantic rocker with a chugging rhythm and stuttering horns. It’s a 4-guitar attack with Waits, Taylor, Richards and Ribot all playing on the track. But it’s Musselwhite’s harmonica that draws out the blues in this torrid, but terse opener…clocking in at a mere 2:12 and finishing with Waiting bellowing “All aboard!”
Up next is Raised Right Men. This one features the patented clangy percussion Waits’ recent albums have been known for. Flea provides a loping bass line, but it’s Augie Meyer’s stinging Vox organ that sets the tone here. Tension is added by the guitars’ (most likely Ribot’s) incessant riff. The song is populated by characters with names like Gunplay Maxwell, Flat Nose George and Ice Pick Ed Newcomb. Waits himself seems to be channelling Nick Cave, or maybe it’s the other way around. There’s not much distance between Raised Right Men and Red Right Hand.
Waits and his cronies lay down a late night, smoke-filled, jazzy groove on Talking At The Same Time. David Hidalgo’s atmospheric, twangy guitar sets the mood and Waits sings in falsetto. Meyers adds some spooky-sounding piano to the proceedings and the horn section adds its two-cents to this early highlight.
Another highlight follows. Get Lost is a full-on psycho-billy rocker, the kind The Cramps used to do back in the day. “I don’t want to feel all cooped up, I wanna get lost!”, Waits roars, and who would doubt him. Hidalgo chimes in with a suitably rockin’ guitar solo and Waits sounds as if he’s speaking in tongues as the track fades out.
Face To The Highway is less noisy. Hidalgo dials up “twang” on his trusty 6-string while a brooding Waits is full of regret, singing, “I turned my back on you…I’m going away”. A mournful violin, played by Dawn Harms, saws away at the song’s end.
Pay Me is a whiskey-soaked ballad accented by Augie Meyers Tex-Mex accordion. The song harkens back to Waits’ 70s recordings with the singer accompanying himself on piano.
Closing out side one, if you’ve got the vinyl edition, is another slow one, Back In The Crowd. David Hidalgo plays some lovely Spanish guitar and Waits cries in his beer, throwing himself upon the mercy of his beloved.
Side two starts up with a bang. Bad As Me, the title track features a psychotic vocal turn from Mr Waits alongside Marc Ribot’s skewed guitar riffs. Waits’ lyrics are somewhat shocking…”You’re the letter from Jesus on the bathroom wall, you’re Mother Superior in only a bra”. A dynamic sax/harmonica combo helps drive this one home.
Kiss Me features just Waits and bass player Marcus Shelby, with Tom playing guitar and piano. It’s 70-style Waits again. “Kiss me like a stranger,” he begs. It’s a touching track shaded with a light dusting of static and electronic hum.
“I will have satisfaction”, Waits demands on the next song. And sure enough Keith Richards is right there to give him some. Waits name-checks Jagger and Richards on Satisfied, a honking, stomping blues. “Roll my vertebrae out like dice, let my skull be home for the mice”. Indeed.
Last Leaf again features Richards, this time on vocals. As the two sing, “I’m the last leaf on the tree”, it’s easy to imagine them stumbling down a darkened street, holding each other up, singing this boozy ballad.
Keith sticks around for one more, the noisy Hell Broke Luce. Flea’s back on bass and Charlie’s harp is front and center, while the beat seems to be that of a military march. It’s a thinly-veiled anti-war rant, complete with machine gun sound effects. The horns add a bit of New Orleans when the track breaks down, and Waits closes the song singing, “I’m home, I’m blind and I’m broke.” So much for shock and awe.
Wrapping things up is New Year’s Eve, a patented Wait’s tearjerker. The sentimental ballad features Hidalgo on guitar and accordion and Waits breaks in to Auld Lang Syne mid-way through the song. He leaves us with regrets and a tear in his eye.
An artist with such a distinct and unique style as Tom Waits always runs the risk of becoming a parody of himself, especially as the years add up. While there are a few moments when Waits sounds as if he is “playing” Tom Waits, for the most part he sounds genuine and honest. The production and playing on this album is top notch, but what really sets it apart is Waits’ lyrics and his ability to deliver those lyrics like no one else. The fact that the music is shot through with plenty of rock & roll heart makes Bad As Me near perfect.
Click here to listen to Get Lost from Bad As Me: