Tom Waits: Bad As Me
One minute and sixteen seconds into track eight of this extraordinary and lyrically beautiful album my 9 year-old- son said in a surprised tone: “at last a real person is singing”, as if everything up to that point had been performed by a wild animal or alien being.
This album is a dirty melodic return to form and has something to offer every Waits fan. So if you like his gruff, drunken, cage fight rattling delivery you will love it, if you like his sweeter, stripped down, sleazy, greasy haired, crumpled crooning you will not be disappointed, there are nuggets of delicious seedy gold galore to be found. Plenty of diamonds too, all sonically buffed up having been recorded in a studio, rather than a shed.
Like a steam train coughing and pounding out of a smoke filled tunnel, ‘Chicago’ chugs out of the speakers past the ears and into the distance roaring it’s way to the windy city, where “maybe things will be better”. You have no choice but to jump on the musical train as Waits yells “All aboard”. On track two Waits barks “There ain’t enough raised right men” and although a good woman can make a diamond out of a “lump of coal” most aren’t prepared to stick around that long. So, had men like Ice Pick Ned Newcomb or Flat Nose George had a strong broad behind them, they might not have ended up on the slab in the morgue.
‘Talking At The Same Time’ has a sleepy, decaying bluesy texture and Waits’ vocals sound suitably tired and defeated as he tells us that no one will “pull you out of the mud” that the bankers “got the fruit, we got the rind”. The puh puh puh of the trumpet, the soft walk of the bass and the trickle of piano throughout the track, along with the floating tremolo of David Hidalgo’s guitar, give the track a dreamy quality but the lyrics remind you of the reality, nightmare, selfishness and greed of recent times.
‘Get Lost’ is a song about feeling frisky and doing something about it. It pounds and humps. A “real tight sweater” is the catalyst to skive off work, go for a drive, park up and get up to no good while Wolfman Jack talks dirty and encourages mischief from the car radio. Face to the Highway follows, it is a familiar tale of a man leaving, taking to the road, but the lyrics are anything but clichéd. “Ocean wants a sailor” and “Sky wants a bird” are just two of many great lines that tip the song towards poetry at times. ‘Pay Me’, a personal highlight, could have featured on Swordfishtrombones/Frank’s Wild Years; the accordion summoning instant sadness to Waits’ tale of a failed actress who is given money from home to tread the boards. It could jerk tears. ‘Back In The Crowd’ is another sweet sad gem, it is a throaty Elvis – circa “Are you lonesome tonight?”. ‘Bad As Me’ wakes the senses again, a blacksmith’s blues played by raindogs: Bad Tom, eely and oily, blood-soaked. ‘Kiss Me’, a stripped down, naked song where Waits sings of strangers but this time he (or is it Brennan?) wants to be kissed like a stranger as their love is near death. ‘Satsified features Keith Richards, riffing his blues and Waits’ Jaggeresque black and blues hollering and screaming. Yet, Waits insists he will scratch the itch and get some satisfaction. If I didn’t know Waits was white, I would have guessed he was black from this extraordinary vocal performance. ‘Last Leaf’ has Richards singing, the first backing vocal on the album. It is a welcome surprise and fitting too – these two old leaves clinging on, refusing to give up; sadly defiant. ‘Hell Broke Luce’, the devil returns. Using an old traditional tune that was used to teach children their left and right, this is military stomp that includes machine gun fire percussion. It is a song that leaves you bruised, brutally bashed and bullied. Tantamount to taking a chopper ride over Vietnam, Iraq or Afghanistan.
‘New Year’s Eve’, ends the album and here the lyrics disappoint, just a little, not helped by the rhyming of freezing with sneezing, then war and score early on. It is pure Prince, predictable, rhyme book lyric writing. Though Waits’ straining, almost desperately nostalgic voice quickly rescues the song and pulls it back to greatness with Chris Grady’s lonely trumpet and David Hidalgo’s accordion sealing the deal.
Waits remains a curiosity, a professional showman with the ability to delight, move and stir his audience at will, leaving them with little idea of what the “real” Waits is like, but wanting more and more of the Waits they don’t know.
Rating: 9 out of 10
Buy the album from Banquet Records here
Click here to visit Tom’s official website, including tour dates