First Impressions: Bad As Me by Tom Waits

At the end of “Chicago,” the sax-driven “brawler” that opens Bad As Me,Tom Waits starts screaming “all aboard” like a slightly demented old-time train conductor. In the song, he’s inviting the protagonist to board the train to a better life in Chicago, but it’s just as much a call for listeners to climb onto the musical amusement park ride that is any Tom Waits’ album. Are you ready to join him as he scratches once again through the detritus of the American landscape?  

I sure am, and God I’ve missed you, Tom! It’s been seven long years since new material. I miss your expressive, unique, sandpaper voice, your musical curiousity, your wild stew of blues, jazz, showtunes, Tin Pan Alley, Americana and junkyard scrap, and your quirky, literary, funny and sometimes plain odd lyrics.  

Musically, Bad As Me is in the vein of Mule Variations or Frank’s Wild Years, as opposed to the more experimental sound on his last release of new material, 2004’s Real Gone. It features the combination of “brawlers” (the blues and rock numbers), “bawlers” (ballads, often with piano or quietly plucked guitars), and “bastards” (songs that really don’t fit any category and are often more experimental with spoken word lyrics) so perfectly captured by the title of his three-disk release of outtakes, b-sides and extras from 2006. (Only an artist of Waits’ talent could drop so much unreleased material all at once, and not have a single track suck!)  

The lyrics sometimes reflect current times. The sad slow shuffle of “Everybody’s Talking at the Same Time” captures the current political environment as Waits croon-croaks lines like “Well we bailed out the millionaires, they got the fruit, we got the rind” and “Someone makes money when there’s blood in the streets.”  

“Hell Broke Luce” (a definite “bastard” featuring junkyard percussion, handclaps, dissonant guitar, and Wait’s shout) is a bitter rant from an Iraq war vet watching his friends get blown up and sick. (I assume the spelling of “loose” as “Luce” reflects a kick at the media-driven nature of this war.)  

There’s not a single weak track here. The brawlers kick ass, from the rapidly croaked saxes and twangy banjo on “Chicago,” to “Raised Right Men” with its organ, rapidly tapped tabla and a classic Waits’ list of oddly named characters, to the rapid shuffle of “Get Lost,” to the blues grind of “Satisfied” (with its call out to “Mr. Richards and Mr. Jagger” that “I will scratch where I’ve been itching”).  

The bawlers are highlighted by “Pay Me” (with a characteristic Waits’ line: “The only way down from the gallows is to swing”), “Back in the Crowd” (with Latin-inflected guitar), “Kiss Me” with jazzy stand-up bass, guitar and piano trills accenting his plea to “Kiss me like a stranger once again,” and “New Year’s Eve” with its inclusion of a snippet of Auld Lang Syne. I love the song “Last Leaf” as well, but I have to say that it sounds a bit too much like something he’s written previously.  

Yes, Tom is back in town. Are you aboard? 

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