Until Bad As Me rattled along a few weeks ago, Tom Waits seemed to have settled comfortably into a well-earned musical godfather status, revered by anyone with an ounce of taste but with his best years gradually retreating behind him. Since his last proper album, Real Gone in 2004, we’ve had only leftovers. Reviewing and pigeon-holing your career, as he did on Orphans – three CDs of unreleased tracks labelled as Brawlers, Bawlers or Bastards – is the kind of job best left to the obituarists.
Well, the news is good. Having taken time out to spend time with his back catalogue, Thomas Alan Waits is back with 13 tracks that are by turns new and old, startling and reassuring, funny and sad. It rocks, jumps, slides, squawks, croons, groans, grunts, parps, and makes some highly characteristic squeaking noises. It’s good, and not just in a ‘great to see he’s still making albums’ way. It’s good in a 1980s way, when Waits met and started writing with his wife, Kathleen Brennan, stepping out of his barfly persona into something far more original and disturbing. A 20–year sequence of albums – Swordfishtrombone, Rain Dogs, Frank’s Wild Years, Bone Machine, The Black Rider, Mule Variations, Blood Money, Alice and Real Gone – contain, for the most part, some of the most remarkable music made then or since, in which Waits picks up musical batons from Captain Beefheart, Harry Partch and Chet Baker and creates a glorious music of his own. So it’s exciting to discover that Waits is still capable of making an album that belongs in their company.
Bad As Me is notable for three themes running through the songs: getting out, getting old, and getting it on. These are filtered through an impressive range of styles, from sozzled late night ballads to rampaging stomps. ‘Chicago’, the first track, is immediately solid Waits territory percussive brass and absurdly deep throated growling on a song about emigration, leaving the place you know because “Maybe things will be better in Chicago”. It’s pretty clear they won’t.
On “Turn My Face to the Highway”, a melancholy, wintry track, the temptations of the hearth are spelled out. Waits wants to stay, but for reasons that can’t even be explained his destiny has always been to leave. “Pay Me” is a counterpoint with a Brel-style harmonium and a story about someone paid not to come home. The despairing final lines show just how wrong his stage career has gone: “The only way down from the gallows is to swing / And I’ll wear boots instead of high heels / And the next stage that I am on it will have wheels.”
Tom Waits’ idea of good loving is probably not for every woman. ‘Get Lost’ is a cheerful boogie in which he delivers a very entertaining vocal impression of Elvis as he suggests to someone that they “Roll down the windows / and turn up Wolfman Jack”. ‘Kiss Me’ is stripped back highlight, just a piano and a bass, Waits at his absolute graveliest, and a call to “Kiss me like a stranger again.”
“Raised Right Men” definitely falls into the ‘getting old’ category, a tongue-in-cheek lament about the lack of the kind of men identified in the title. All the examples Waits gives though seem to be either destitute or dead. It’s very funny, as is the title song, one of a series of hilariously manic tracks. Waits tells someone – “mother superior in only a bra” – why they’re the same kind of bad as him. It may sound on the surface like ludicrous posing, but Waits is entirely aware of his own potential to be ludicrous and has a great time revelling in it. “Satisfied” is a riposte to the Stones, doubtless triggered by the presence of Keith Richards on several tracks. His philosophy is set out very clearly: “Now Mr. Jagger and Mr. Richards / I will scratch where I’ve been itching.” He’s past the age when waiting was an option.
Perhaps the three most memorable songs come one after another at the end of Bad As Me. ‘Last Leaf’ is a classic Waits bar ballad. He used to sing nothing but these: now, when he does, they really hit home. It’s a semi-serious cry of defiance against the dying of the light, but it’s also rather beautiful, enhanced by rough-edge harmonising from Richards. ‘Hell Broke Luce’ appears to use a train instead of percussion but reveals itself as a marching song, a controlled anti-war rant about Iraq and Afghanistan. Waits is angry about the experience of mutilated and dying soldiers who can’t hear what the President has to say to them because they’ve been deafened by explosions.
Finally, ‘New Year’s Eve’ is a tale of woe, a last night out before the narrator leaves for good, packed full of chaotic, drug-fuelled family chaos. It also includes some of the funniest rhymes this side of Insane Clown Posse – “All the noise was disturbing / and I couldn’t find Irving” being a highlight.
Bad As Me is a real achievement, a varied, fascinating, exhilarating album. No wonder Keith Richards wants to get in on this: he hasn’t written anything remotely on this level for years. There’s a danger that we take Tom Waits for granted, without stepping back to consider just how impressive a musician he really is. He is a true writer, his songs containing not a single careless, poorly considered word. He’s also a subtle, innovative singer with a voice that no-one else can match. He’s still doing it at the age of 62, and we just have to pray he won’t be stopping any time soon.