His contemporaries would be doing well to sound as energised as Tom Waits does on Bad As Me, his first studio album of all new material in seven years.
On the album’s livelier cuts, such as the brilliant title track, a blistering rhythm n’ blues number in which Waits audibly grins devilishly from ear to ear, growling low, then howling high, his band sound as mean and soulful as a vintage Chess records backing band.
One of the guitarists present on the album did indeed record at Chess in the mid 1960s and was greatly influenced by its artists. Keith Richards’ presence also serves for lyrical inspiration in the track “Satisfied”, which sounds basically like a jam, with Waits barking out “Mr. Jagger and Mr. Richards, gonna scratch what I been itchin…I will have satisfaction, I will be satisfied”. The dirty sounding guitar parts backed with a simple beat are the perfect playground for Waits to do his best Howlin’ Wolf impersonations, along with some killer harmonica , courtesy of Chicago blues legend Charlie Musselwhite.
Waits and long-time co-songwriter/co-producer/wife Kathleen Brennan have actually managed to sonically reference the Chicago blues sound on these up-tempo numbers, which gives the record a certain leanness to its production, making the playing seem suitably live and raw. Similarly, you can smell the jazz club in the ballads , yet this is not a nostalgia trip, this is a reassertion of what Waits has been doing all along and an extremely focused one.
This is Waits in ‘classic’ form, revisiting the raw blues of Heart Attack and Vine, as well the smooth crooner of Blue Valentine on tracks such as the beautiful and spooky “Talking at the Same Time”, even incorporating a little double-bass jazz on “Kiss Me Like a Stranger”. That Waits is adept at a number of key styles should be a surprise to nobody, however it is how he has so cohesively placed his different musical hats side by side that makes Bad As Me a truly revelatory album.
“Back in the Crowd” is surely one of the most tender songs that the singer has ever committed to disc, in which he employs his intimate croon, pleading “if you don’t want my love, don’t make me stay” over a beautiful Spanish guitar. The fact that this precedes the title track, one of the album’s ‘brawlers’, as opposed to ‘bawlers’, is a testament to how well the pieces fit together to make a very complete feeling album.
This method is repeated when “Last Leaf on the Tree”, a ballad in the vein of Waits’ early troubadour material such as “Ol’ 55” or “On the Nickel”, proceeds “Hell Broke Luce”. The latter song, which apparently was inspired by the beat from the Beastie Boys’ “Watcha Want”, and unites Waits and Richards with Marc Ribot and Flea, even features the sixty-one year old doing a sort of anti-war rap (sample lyric: what the hell was it that the president said?/Give him a beautiful parade instead/left/right/left), an angry rant with machine gun sound effects for subtlety, yet even this is only weird in a great way.
Arguably, it has been since 1999’s bizarre triumph Mule Variations that Waits fans have been waiting for a solid album of new songs, and for Bad As Me it has been worth the wait. Perhaps this is the reason that, as his seventeenth album, this has had the biggest selling worldwide debut of his career. Either way, this will certainly be one of the year’s best releases and deserves to be seen as one Waits’ finest achievements.
Originally published on The Au Review on 10/11/2011. View original article.