Tom Waits ain’t as Bad As Me

by juli boggs

My listening party is not quite as it was depicted in the promo-video for Bad As Me, but it is not entirely dissimilar. In Tom Waits’ version, there is a stack of old stereos piled up behind a desk with a tuner, a glass of water, and a ringing telephone.  At my desk there is only a computer and a cup of coffee, the telephone in the corner more of a notion than necessity. From the east-facing window looking out over the Long Island Sound, the hot orange glow of sunrise streams in, illuminating the cold, bare walls. Beyond the office lay the vast concrete and steel expanse of a nuclear power plant, where hardened old men drag themselves along echoing corridors, burdened by the weight of respirators, protective clothing, and canvas bags of freshly oiled tools.

I believe Waits would appreciate this scene. Over the course of nearly 40 years and 17 studio releases, the troubadour of doom has crafted an intricate saga acted out by tired working stiffs, old drunks, and drunk loves- all in the image of himself. With a little variation, the essence of the music stays the same. It is a salty, dimly lighted romance. It is barroom piano heartbreak; the solitude of loneliness; the joy of open roads; half-remembered images of roses, whiskey, foreign ports, and depression era snapshots. In the end it is a celebration of life’s vicissitudes, where pain and sorrow must face the miracle that we are still alive at all.

The first release of new material since Real Gone in 2004, Bad As Me has come treading in to meet a party of many high expectations. Will it be a new era of material departing from his well-worn themes? Will it surpass the success of Real Gone? Will it give me what I want? Does he still have “it”? Speaking of these suppositions in a New York Times interview Waits says, “It always seems to be like bakery goods or fish. People want to know if it’s fresh.”

Like many of his past releases, Bad As Me includes contributions by a number of notable musicians. Keith Richards, Les Claypool, Flea, and as usual Marc Ribot, a longtime collaborator lesser known as the front-man of Los Cubans Postizos (The Prosthetic Cubans), which is the most excellent band name ever. The previously mentioned piece in the Times notes that the musicians were brought in individually to record rather than all at once, and that Waits would prompt them with different motivations saying “ ‘I want you to play like you’re 7 years old at a recital. I want you to play like your mom’s in the room. I want you to play like you’re miles from home, and your legs are dangling from a boxcar. Or play like your hair’s on fire. Play like you have no pants on.’ ”

Eight songs into the album, the title track and sole single “Bad As Me” is the first glimpse of the glitter and doom that fans have come to expect. Highlighted by Ribot’s Cuban inspired riffs, it is a high-energy confession of complicity, reveling in its own immodesty. “You’re the letter from Jesus on the bathroom wall/you’re mother superior in only a bra/ you’re the same kind of bad as me.” As Waits cuts between the limits of his range with high wailing verses and deep rumbling moans he admits, “No good you say? Well that’s good enough for me.”

“Kiss Me” is the ballad highlight, a lounge number with the perfect balance of nostalgic imagery and emotional tension that keeps the listener cloudy headed and coy to the very end. It’s easy to imagine Waits leaning comfortably against a piano with as much magnetism as Ella Fitzgerald or Billie Holiday as he slowly drawls “I want to believe our love’s a mystery/ I want to believe our love’s a sin/ I want you to kiss me like a stranger once again.”

“Hell Broke Luce” is the album’s heavy hitter, the title pulled from a knife-point inscription on a cell wall in Alcatraz with all the aggression to match its origin. With the gruff stomp and hand clap percussion reminiscent from Real Gone, the pace is relentlessly driving as the tale of a drug-addled veteran unravels, punctuated at its height by machine gunfire and the chilling military refrain of “Left! Right! Left!

The album’s closing track “New Years Eve” is a moment of waking relief after troubled dreams.  While it may feel like an abrupt change from the penultimate “Hell Broke Luce,” one need only see it as an emotional continuation from the opposite perspective, the story of a tired man looking after worn and tired friends. Backed by warbling guitars and Parisian accordion, the lyrics paint a half-spoken montage of fleeting joy and subtle sorrow as the chorus lapses into refrains of “Auld Lang Syne.” With the imagery of 4 AM fireworks, diamond stars, sobering black coffee, and the wail of police sirens, it is a beautiful reminiscence of a finally silent night, calmly resigned and emotionally loaded, a beautiful conclusion to a brief and somber narrative.

While not as chockfull of gruff heavy hitters or swooning ballads as previous efforts, Bad As Me does stand out as a concisely edited album of quick poetic couplets, blues and Latin informed riffs, and even a few subdued, sneak attack tracks that seem forgettable at first but grow on you over time. Who knows if it will stand out as a favorite in the end. Perhaps it already is. We may just need some time until we know it ourselves.

If you haven’t seen the Tom Waits Private Listening Party, view it here and now:

*feature image from Static