Music Reviews
Bad As Me

Tom Waits Bad As Me

(Anti-) Rating - 9/10

The first album of all new songs Waits has released since 2004's Real Gone rattles out of the station with the rollicking Chicago, a fine addition to the tradition of American train songs, like a cartoon version Leadbelly's Midnight Special. The track is a statement of intent for what follows, as this album is Waits' bluesiest and rockiest in a long time. The presence of one Keith Richards on this song and three others reinforces the R & B elements of the album, although if only the Stones had sounded this vital at a similar point in their career, instead of strutting their aching bones on the stages of the world's enormodomes.

Artists of Waits' age (specifically rock / pop musicians) who have remained relevant and recorded worthwhile records throughout their career are rare beasts indeed. Roberts Plant and Wyatt certainly; Neil Young on a good day; Nick Cave, although he's a generation younger but still well into his second half-century. (There's more to be found I'm sure, but for the purposes of this review I'll stop there.) In the seven years since Real Gone there were those who might have thought Waits had foregone the visceral thrills of rock'n'roll in favour of playing oddballs in movies. (Although he's always juggled the two pretty well; see the early films of Jim Jarmusch for evidence). The two records he did release in that time - a live album and an enormous compilation of out-takes, previously unrecorded songs and rarities - together had the feeling of a rounding up, a tying of loose ends before retiring disgracefully from the scene.

I'm very pleased to say that Bad As Me proves that Waits is still a force to be reckoned with. After the frenzy of the opener, track two begins with the organ stabs and swagger of Raised Right Men, echoing Nick Cave's Red Right Hand in its sensual rhythm and menace. It's populated by a scary-sounding bunch of characters: Gunplay Maxwell, Flat Nose George, Ice Pick Ed Newcomb, but they're disarmed by their women as the singer laments that "there ain't enough raised right men".

The album has it's fair share of the booze-sodden ballads that have become Waits' stock in trade. Face To The Highway has the singer turning his back on domesticity and setting out on the great American road, clothes dusty and torn, hitching a lift with his life's belongings on his back. Pay Me is a lovely tear-jerker of a song, continuing the theme of journeying, or rather escape: "the next stage that I am on it will have wheels". Back In The Crowd has a Mexican air to it, as Waits laments "take my picture from the frame/and put me back in the crowd".

After the bittersweet sentimentality of this trio of songs comes the clatter and squall of the title track. "You're the same kind of bad as me"  he sings with his tongue firmly in his cheek. It's another belter of a track with some great guitar playing from Wait's long-time collaborator Mark Ribot. Mr Richards returns on Satisfaction, a repost to The Stones' song of the same name, but where Mick Jagger couldn't get none, Waits is gonna get his no matter what. " Mr Jagger and Mr Richards / I will scratch where I've been itching".  

Hell Broke Luce is Waits' most overtly politicized song on the album, a furious and guttural rap with Waits in character as an injured war veteran from a campaign that could be Vietnam, as much as it could be Iraq or Afghanistan, if only for the references to "Humvees" and "Kevlar". The lyrics are direct and unflinching, for example "While I was over there I never got to vote / I left my arm in my coat / my mom she died I never wrote / we sat by the fire and ate goat / just before he died he had a toke...", while the instrumentation is almost military with percussion and handclaps like gunshots, and the guitar insistent and needling courtesy of some more great interplay between Ribot and Richards. In the breakdown there's a brief burst of The Last Post, while a Muezzin later floats in providing a ghostly counterpoint to the violent imagery. Waits' sings/raps with a conviction that lends the track real power, making it the album's most memorable song, the one that lingers in the memory longest. Finally we come to the end, on New Year's Eve, and it's one of those tear and whiskey soaked ballads that we've come to love. Just to make sure we won't escape the album without blubbing like babies he chucks in a few lines from Auld Lang Syne.

And then we're done. It's good to have Waits back on his best form after the seven year hiatus. In retrospect it was as if he had to take that time out to figure out who Tom Waits really is. All of his styles are here represented, but where the Orphans compilation was sprawling and lacked focus, Bad As Me is contained and precise with each of its 13 songs hitting its target full on. It's Waits' best album since Rain Dogs, and may possibly be even better than that - only time will tell, but it will be time well spent.