Under Review: Tom Waits – Bad As Me
Calling the music of Tom Waits an ‘acquired taste’ isn’t nearly enough. A complete suspension of every musical convention is more like it. Then again, Waits’ entire career has been so rooted in variations on traditional music (folk, jazz, blues) that it would be fair to say that he’s as American as they come. Over the past few decades, perhaps coinciding with his marriage to artist Kathleen Brennan, Waits’ albums have become increasingly experimental, reinforcing everything that both his fans and critics were saying about him. Going in to Bad As Me, Waits’ seventeenth studio album and first since 2004, you might expect a characteristically difficult presentation. In fact, the album is one of the more accessible ones that Waits has made in years, even if being ‘accessible’ still requires the mind to be open to Waits’ peculiar muse. Bad As Me frantically opens with “Chicago,” dropping the listener into a bustling scene that’s already in action. The album’s songs generally fall into two distinct modes: raucous and challenging or tender and understated. Waits is a long-established master of both sentiments, and Bad As Me finds him channeling his strengths into a taut package.
With regards to the more difficult (read: classic Waits) moments, they serve as Bad As Me’s biggest hooks. The loping noir of the goody-goody-skewering title track and the militaristic clang of “Hell Broke Luce” are some of the most ear-catching moments on the record. To be fair, Waits usually adheres to the mantra of ‘If something’s worth doing, it’s worth overdoing.’ His angry songs are very angry, but his sentimental songs are very sentimental. On Bad As Me, we get the reflective “Last Leaf,” in which Waits marvels at his own “staying power.” This disarming moment of creative doubt (from such a singularly creative artist) gives Waits a rare vulnerability. The Mexicali flair of “Back In The Crowd” comes courtesy of Los Lobos’ David Hidalgo, whose guitar work gives a melodic counter Marc Ribot’s more aggressive style. Bad As Me ends with “New Year’s Eve,” whose interpolation of “Auld Lang Syne” caps off the record with a feeling of both celebration and melancholy. Expressing and embodying universally core emotions is a skill that Waits has honed over nearly forty years. His music is certainly not for everyone, even if it is infinitely relatable.