Tom Waits Bad As Me

Written by Anas Al-Horani
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Tom Waits is back after an absence that lasted seven long years, strolling again through the apparently arid American scene with his music and his usual charm, his drunk, poetic pessimism and his devil’s baritone, crossing the boundaries of a rich variety of genres including blues, rockabilly, and jazz to paint an almost perfect sketch or vignette of the American life. In Bad As Me Tom Waits seems to just shake the stories and ideas out of his sleeve onto the record. It's an ebullient and brightly imagined (and executed) album, with some jaw-droppingly good bits.

The first track, “Chicago”, is a speeding R&B tune that feels eerily familiar, yet fresh and powerful all the same, a quality that pervades the whole album; it is a triumphant album opener, filled with groove and soul – think of Steve Reich and Philip Glass collaborating with Big Joe Turner. Not only that, but it is also a passionate reminiscence of the Great Migration, the movement of 6 million blacks out of the Southern United States to the Northeast, Midwest, and West from 1910 to 1930; however, it is not the only song in this album that discusses the themes of migration, dissatisfaction, and depression of the soul of the American man. The dusty, bluesy “Raised Right Men”, with all its cheap tongue-in-cheek lines and darkly comical jokes, is an allusion to an America that has become mythical. “Talking at the Same Time”, a horn-ridden lullaby carried off by Waits’ falsetto, channels the America of the 1930s with lines like, “Well, it’s hard times for some / for others it’s sweet./ Someone makes money when there’s blood in the street…” and “The trees wait by the freeway / All the money is gone”.

After “Talking at the Same Time” fades, “Get Lost” hits the listener’s ears hard with solid rockabilly guitar showmanship and incessant, loud horns, while Waits croons, yearning for his girl, “When you wear that real tight sweater / you know I can’t resist. / It’s been that way forever baby / Ever since we kissed.” It’s easy to forgive Waits his thematic deviation, and possibly his indulgence too, because it sounds so fresh and sincere, and no indulgence outlasts its welcome on this record.

In “Face to the Highway” the wild, rattling brawler that is Tom Waits sings a subtle hymn to the road that seems ever present and ever alluring, more alluring than love itself. Its richly textured wall of sound feels confined and spacious at the same time.
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“Pay Me” is one of the most gorgeous highlights in this album. Waits’ voice sounds peaceful, drowsy and too charming for a melancholic confession like “They pay not come home / Keeping me stoned / I won’t run away…” Along with the Spanish-tinged “Back in the Crowd”, the splendid “New Year’s Eve” which reminds us of Waits’ genius of storytelling, and the beautiful bar-room song “Kiss Me” (which could’ve fit perfectly in an earlier Waits album like Blue Valentine), it provides the necessary contrast, or the lighter stroke in the sketch, as opposed to the darker, more industrialized songs in the album, creating a lovely, well-made balance of atmospheres.

The title track, “Bad As Me” shows Waits trying different vocal registers in one song, and it’s arguably the best song there. Waits’ muted vocals, the vintage drum sounds and the guitars in the background make a sublime mix. His lyrical discreet and loftiness is as powerful and affecting as ever, “I’m the blood on the floor / the thunder and the roar… You’re the same kind of bad as me.”

On “Satisfied”, Tom Waits growls and spits insolently and sibilantly, with Keith Richards wrangling his guitar riffs masterfully, "Roll my vertebrae out like dice / Let my skull be a home for the mice / Let me bleach like the bones on a beach / I'll be hard like a pit from a peach.”

It must be said, however, that Bad As Me is nothing really new or groundbreaking, and all of the minor cohesive or thematic flaws notwithstanding, it still feels like (and sounds like) a proper Tom Waits album. Waits has done similar (and probably better) albums in the recent past, but his conjured power, his intellectual bravado, his bleak street poetry, and his musical genius never fail to astonish the listeners and remind them (or probably just inform them) that there is still hope for music; that true, meaningful art is not dead yet.

Read 4725 times Last modified on Wednesday, 07 April 2021 13:43
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