For everyone who knows me it is no mystery that the “Big Bang” from which the Universe of my musical predilection originated and started expanding is one Tom Waits. To put it simply: my life can easily be divided into “Before Tom” and “After Tom”. Ever since I’ve come across his work Tom Waits has helped shape my view and understanding of the process of writing and composing music. I even wrote my dissertation on the man’s oeuvre so it was only natural for me to get around to reviewing his very well received 2011 record Bad as Me.
The album begins with what is probably Tom’s most powerful opening track since “Underground” (off Swordfishtrombones) ushered in the new manifestation of Tom’s sound almost thirty years ago.
“The seeds are planted here
But they won’t grow
We won’t have to say goodbye
If we all go
Maybe things will be better
With theses lyrics Waits once again invites the listener into his bizarre world and unveils the first of several songs dealing with very contemporary social issues, a bit of an unusual approach for this legendary songwriter though we did get a glimpse of this aspect of his music in ‘2004s Real Gone with the splendid “Day after Tomorrow”. Tom resurrects his newfound interest in contemporary social issues in “Talking at the same time”
Well it’s hard times for some
For others it’s sweet
Someone makes money when there’s blood in the street
Don’t take any lip/ Stay in line
Everybody’s talking at the same time
which he delivers in his very rarely-employed throaty wheeze which is my favorite expression of his voice and which, as far as I can remember, he only used in “Dirt in the Ground” (1992) and “Temptation” (1987) – a very rare sight (or rather sound) indeed. He keeps up the same theme in “Hell Broke Luce” (How is it that the only ones responsible for making this mess/ Got their sorry asses stapled to a goddamn desk) a very noisy “meat-and-potatoes” kind of song about the horrors of war. The song is indeed pretty catchy and I can tell that Tom likes it (he made a video for it after all) though I can’t help but notice it stands out like a sore thumb and strikes me as somewhat of a backwards cousin of “The Day after Tomorrow”.
While the themes he tackles in some of the songs go beyond his usual stories about tragic individual destinies set against the backdrop of the dark and weird aspects of Americana, the sound of the songs seems to be more conservative. There is a lot less experimenting and greatly reduced “noise” (with the exception of “Hell Broke Luce”) as opposed to his other records and the melody of the songs seems more conventional. Perhaps it is because I’ve been a longtime fan but many of the songs, while obviously very good tracks, seemed a bit too familiar to me, especially coming from a singer who is known for his innovations and for constantly re-inventing his sound . “Face to the Highway” sounds like “Sins of my Father”, “Pay Me” is similar to “Innocent When You Dream” and “Kiss Me” is a dead ringer for “Blue Valentines”. Meanwhile, “Back in the Crowd” reminiscent of “Hold On” sounds as though it could have been written by Mark Knopfler.
These are all lovely songs, mind you, and I know I’m just nitpicking but that only happens because I’ve been such a great admirer of the man’s work for so long that anything I hear will, at this point, inevitably sound like something I’ve heard before. That’s why I have the feeling that this might be a recording best appreciated by an audience which is not as familiar with Tom’s work as his die-hard fans. Songs like “Satisfied” and “Bad As Me” are instant charmers, the former sporting some of the most imaginative lyrics I’ve heard from Waits in a while (when i'm gone/ roll my vertebrae out like dice/ let my skull be a home for the mice/ let me bleach like the bones on the beach/ i'll be hard like a pit from a peach) and the latter with its mesmerizing horn section and crazy, almost nonsensical lyrics bound to become an instant Tom Waits anthem.
On “Last Leaf” an incredibly tender ballad, one of his so-called “grand weepers”, reminiscent of the flawless “House where Nobody lives” Waits teams up with fellow-old-timer Keith Richards to deliver the highlight of the album and prove that he is at his most brilliant when approaching existential themes especially related to the passage of time, perhaps paralleled only by the late, great Johnny Cash. “Last Leaf” also delivers some of the most beautiful poetry that the husband-and-wife tandem of Waits and Brennan have ever produced:
When he autumn wind blows
They’re already gone
They flutter to the ground
Cause they can’t hang on
There’s nothing in the world
That I ain’t seen
I greet all the new ones that are coming in green
I’m the last leaf on the tree
The autumn took the rest but they won’t take me
I’m the last leaf on the tree.
Speaking of Keith Richards, he is not the only talented musician that Waits has teamed up with for Bad As Me. The record includes, among others, the likes of longtime collaborator and guitar-genius Marc Ribot, bass player Flea of Red Hot Chili Peppers fame, Primus’ Les Claypool and Tom’s own son Casey on drums.
Overall the album, much like everything else that Waits has ever released is a musical treasure. Every individual song is polished to perfection and there isn’t a single dull or weak track on it. This is also something that attracted my attention as the record seems to be consistently good from start to finish as opposed to the highs-and-lows structure of most of his other records. No song immediately stands out as excellent but there is also not a single track that can be “skipped”. And though to a long-time fan it might, as I mentioned before, at times seem a bit on the “safe side” it would be absurd to expect every record to be an experiment or an innovation so I will take my own advice and enjoy it for what it is: a wonderful album from a musician that embodies the expression “aging well”.