Bad As Me
, October 21st, 2011 05:33
“I’m the last leaf on the tree,” Tom Waits croons on new song ‘Last Leaf’, “The autumn took the rest but it won’t take me”. Whether this is a boast or a lament, I’m not sure, but it certainly rings true of Waits. Even our most beloved senior rock & rollers experience years of artistic fallow and famine from which many never recover. David Bowie, Brian Wilson, Paul McCartney, The Stones continue to release records of varying quality each year. But while these acts sell shows out on a regular basis it’s really only the dedicated few who are out buying their latest studio offerings. Hard to imagine now, but even Johnny Cash’s career suffered a prolonged period of obscurity before he bounced back towards the end of his life. Everyone goes to oldies hell, but not Waits. It’s remarkable to think that in all this time, he’s never released a sub-par album nor swayed away from his unique furrow.
Anyone familiar with his back catalogue will tell you that there are actually several different incarnations of Tom Waits. One is a washed-up barroom crooner, another a drunken Santa, one a circus freak on a motorcycle, the other a unabomber. These many personae were collated into three main archetypes - Brawlers, Bawlers and Bastards – for the 2006 compilation Orphans. Bad As Me picks up on the same ‘ragged bluesman’ continuum he’s been travelling on since 1999’s Mule Variations. Equal parts brawlers and bawlers, with few moments of nocturnal weirdness that would qualify as bastards, this is perhaps the closest we’ve come to hearing the 'real' Tom Waits. At 61, he’s no longer play-acting, and is seemingly all the happier for it. That’s right, happy. Just look at the cover - a beaming snapshot of Tom, dancing away with the ghosts of Saturday night. He may be approaching the autumn of his years, but for him the Grim Reaper couldn’t feel further away - because this album is so fucking full of life: “I don’t wanna feel all cooped up / I feel like I’m on a chain / I got my ride all souped up / We’re never coming back again”. The track ‘Let’s Get Lost’ is the closest he’s ever come to an uptempo dance number. It jives and swings unaffectedly.
Indeed, Bad As Me is an album where Waits' brawlers come into their own. The opening track, ’Chicago’, is a horn-driven caper of a song, hastening along on a full head of boom clang steam. Next, ‘Raised Right Man’ hammers things home, with an insistent log rhythm mimicking the triplet chords of boogie-woogie piano. Most impressive of all is ‘Hell Broke Luce’. Truly a highlight of his career - though not his first anti-war song, it’s by far his most furious: “How is it that the only ones responsible for making this mess / Got their sorry asses stapled to a god damn desk?” he snarls before a military drill shouting “LEFT! RIGHT! LEFT!”. The lyrics reconcile the characters of Frank, the troubled army vet of previous songs, ‘The Day After Tomorrow’’s imperilled young soldier, and the scarred Woyzeck, subject of Waits’ musical Blood Money. Here we’re shown the after-effects of war at their most horrifying. A disorientatingly violent stomp/clap rhythm is tattered by gunfire and shreds of metal guitar. A shellshocked war victim is asked: “What did you do before the war?”, but he can only stutter: “I was a chef / I was a chef”; 'What was the name?' / It was Jeff/ Jeff!/ I lost my buddy and I wept”.
Some may bemoan the dearth of lyrics to do with one-armed dwarves and army ants on this record. But the Bad As Me Tom Waits is a 21st century human being with a family, a social conscience and an entourage of highly-skilled musicians. He is no nightmare carnie or shack-dwelling hermit. These days the bogeymen are out there in the real world.
This new-found realism sadly doesn’t serve Waits’ bawlers quite so well. The reason many of his past ballads worked is because they were delivered with such flamboyant pathos as to make them genuinely heart-stirring. By taking off his theatrical mask, Tom Waits The Man exposes himself to a handful of corny moments lacking in illusion and slowing the album down. This isn’t helped by a disjointed fast song / slow song sequencing order that gets noticeably more predictable as the record wears on. I found myself wishing he’d separated his Brawlers from his Bawlers as on the Orphans collection instead of making them rub up against each other.
But this is a small complaint, especially when many of the ballads contain some quite lovely moments. ‘Pay Me’ might be schmaltzy, but it’s worth appreciating the gorgeous instrumentation, particularly the coda’s echoing piano and accordion duet. Meanwhile, ‘Everybody’s Talking’ is a funereal blues featuring an off-beat horn section and Johnny Kidd-style tremolo chords. Waits, possessed of a wide octave range, revives the strained wraithish falsetto heard on songs like ‘Temptation’ – a rare but welcome trick. ‘Face To The Highway’ slopes down the same leaf-strewn track as ‘Sins Of My Father’ (from Real Gone), thankfully avoiding that song’s 10+ minute running time.
And of course it wouldn’t be Tom Waits without the appropriation of a Yuletide motif. Some might find closer ‘New Year’s Eve’ – which borrows wholesale from Auld Lang Syne - just a little too hammy, but I bet as the Christmas lights go up and the grit levels go down, this becomes a real winter grower.
Now in the fifth decade of his career, and with as strong a fanbase as ever, Tom Waits is as relevant today as he’s ever been. If anything the passage of time has allowed Waits to fulfil his own prophecy, as he finally matures into the character he’s been play-acting all these years, only to find that he doesn’t need him any more. By shedding much of his fantastical baggage but none of his charm, he has created a nimble, playful little album that ranks among his very best. A truly timeless artist, still at the peak of his powers.