tl,dr: this is a great Tom Waits album.
For context, I’m not a diehard — of his “classic” catalog, I only ever bought Nighthawks At The Diner, which was entertaining but not exactly five-star material for my personal taste. However, after taking most of the ’90s off, Waits got my full attention at the end of the century with Mule Variations. That debut of what’s been a fruitful relationship with the ANTI- label contained several strong tracks — including “Get Behind The Mule” and later, “Take It With Me”, which is, in fact, one of not very many five-star songs on my iPod. It’s one of those songs where you listen to it, it breaks your heart, and then you thank it for the privilege.
Twelve years later, following a live album that I reluctantly passed on because his voice just sounded godawful (yes, even by Tom Waits standards), out comes Bad As Me. The samples sounded encouraging, and I got the deluxe version. Yes, 16 songs is a lot of Tom Waits at once, and that concerned me, but there was no way I was passing up a Waits composition called “After You Die”.
All The Waitses + Their Friends
Bad As Me finds Waits riding comfortably in any of his usual gears — Waits The Howler, Waits The Philosopher, Waits The Crooner, plus assorted other characters. Tremolo-trimmed nervous energy, sweet waltzes, a frantic two-step, even a little Tex-Mex balladry with some Real Book old-school chord changes … it’s all here.
Tremolo-trimmed nervous energy, sweet waltzes, a frantic two-step, even a little Tex-Mex balladry with some Real Book old-school chord changes … it’s all here.
Beyond Waits, the credit for this kind of sonic toolbox goes to the personnel. Marc Ribot is back with his guitar, all angles and feel at the same time. Los Lobos’ David Hidalgo is a welcome name on most of these tracks, even pulling out the violin on one. Augie Myers (lately of Bob Dylan’s recent output) contributes some piano and stabbing organ, while Charlie Musselwhite’s harmonica dirties things up just so.
Bass? Yeah, Flea and Les Claypool chip in there.
Lyrically, there’s a lot of moving, leaving, and lament of insufficient character in the first half (of course, in some songs, his character may BE the one with insufficient character, but that only supports his point, doesn’t it?). For the amount of stylistic diversity, there’s more thematic continuity than you might expect, and that plus fairly lean running times helps Bad As Me feel like an album instead of a bunch of songs that share a disc.
The Last Leaf
Of course, this universe isn’t especially sunny, but it’s rendered so well in terms of observation (“Why does a wedding ring have a heart of stone?”) and its part-antiquated, part-industrial sound that it’s, well, better. And one odd thing about Waits is that when he sounds his most unhinged vocally, there’s a decent chance he’s the most focused lyrically, as in “Hell Broke Luce”:
Nimrod Bodfish, have you any wool
Get me another body bag the body bag’s full
My face was scorched, scorched
I miss my home I miss my porch, porch
Left, right, left …
Other times, he gets into list mode and just starts letting fly with the little detailed images. That’s entertaining enough on one level, really, but the coherence of the overall effect is what rookies can only (and should) aspire to. I probably wouldn’t be here to enjoy the rants, though, if he couldn’t deliver the occasional set piece designed for emotional impact.
One marketing highlight for Bad As Me is Keith Richards’ appearance on a song called “Satisfied”, replete with references to “Mr. Jagger and Mr. Richards”. But the real treat of Keef’s visit is the next song, “Last Leaf”, where he shares vocals as well as guitar duty.
I’m the last leaf on the tree
The autumn took the rest
But they won’t take me
I’m the last leaf on the tree
You can see why Richards was amenable to participating. If Tom’s voice is a dealbreaker for you, I get it. But if it’s not, and you’re a casual Waits fan or more, then you should participate, too.