Music’s resident avant-bard has now been at it for quite a while, and his latest effort, Bad as Me, proves that he’s still got it (though no one actually doubted he did).
Bad as Me is Waits’ seventeenth studio album and first album of all new material in seven years. Writing and producing responsibilities are shared between Waits and his wife, Kathleen Brennan. Together, they’ve assembled an all-star group of players to help fill out the tracks. Long-time Waits collaborator and guitarist Marc Ribot lends his idiosyncratic musical voice to the album, and adds to the sonic heap of crack musicians featured on the project, including guitarist Keith Richards and bassists Les Claypool and Flea, amongst others.
One listen through gives the feeling that this collection is much tighter and more focused than some of Waits’ other works. Most tracks land in at around the three to four minute mark, and gone are the schizophrenic spoken word pieces and wild cemetery polkas of his late 80’s and 90’s material. In a recent interview, Waits revealed this to have been a deliberate production strategy not-so-subtly proposed to him by Brennan: “Get in, get out. No f—ing around.”
Often, the first thing that comes to mind when someone name-drops Tom Waits is the strange, dark aesthetic he’s crafted over the years, that sound of a drunken carnie howling to an empty lot under the freeway, with a half-imagined band of junkyard dogs beating on tin and bones to back him up. On this release, though, we hear a Waits who has travelled back to a previous self, to a self before the release of such influential and experimental records as Swordfishtrombones and Rain Dogs. This is still a Waits record though, and the spotlight is still centered on that notorious formaldehyde growl.
But here, that growl is working in the context of traditional song forms, mostly ballads, with the occasional bar-waltz or rockabilly ramble thrown in. Of course, these forms are mutated by forays into tonal and rhythmic experimentation, but they still have the appearance of being quintessentially American. The landscape is at times painted with knife-edge guitars, rattling pianos, and bellowing saxophones, but just as often disarms itself with a mélange of quiet strings and melancholic accordions. And as a Waits record, the songs are built on the shoulders of his characters, purveyors of classic American magic and dread: we get stories of middle-class relocation in hopes of a better life (“Chicago”), the lamentations of old and dusty love (“Kiss Me”), and the hellish and thunder-fried landscape of war (“Hell Broke Luce”). Waits is doing what he’s always done, but now he’s doing it with almost sixty-two years under his belt, and the added life blood makes for an evocative and romantic tour de force.
Veteran listeners of Waits will find both familiarity and newness in this album, and for greenhorn listeners, Bad as Me serves as a stellar opportunity to get acquainted with one of the great experimenters in contemporary popular music.