Back in 2006, Tom Waits released a sprawling odds-and-sods collection called Orphans: Brawlers, Bawlers, and Bastards. At a massive three discs, and packaged like a dusty hardbound American tome large enough to bludgeon with, Waits decided to cut directly to the chase: each disc was named after the type of songs contained therein, according to which of the three titular descriptors it matched. That mentality isn’t unique to that set, though; in Tom Waits’ universe, in fact, brawlers, bawlers, and bastards are the only people fit to be narrators.
His latest, Bad As Me, is Waits’ grand return to form, inasmuch as Waits has a “form” – there’s no emotional distance here, nor the dissonance of his last proper album Real Gone, nor the bells and whistles of Blood Money. What remains is pure Tom Waits, and it boasts the thrillingly idiosyncratic style of his acknowledged classics Swordfishtrombones and Rain Dogs; it’s a street level folk-rock festival, infiltrated by lurching N’awlins jazz, stalked by bands of roving gypsies, held on the mean streets and in the speakeasies of Hades. Waits, as always, is the carnival barker extraordinaire, singing every track like he’s Cerberus guarding the gates of Hell. Strange that a man who’s craggy, yelping baritone has always sounded like something unbearably sinister is right around the corner is able to make his own personal apocalypse sound so wickedly fun, but such is the magic of Mr. Waits.
And, for neophytes, Bad As Me is as good a place to start as any. It doesn’t boast the street-level panoramic of Rain Dogs or Frank’s Wild Years, but as a song-cycle that’s about as no-frills and down-to-business as Tom Waits gets, it’s pretty indicative of his sound. Waits’ grim warble is served ably from a crack band – instrumentalists include Flea and Keith Richards – capable of making Waits’ arrangements sound positively ramshackle. The doomy gospel blues of “Raised Right Men” is punctuated by terse organ stabs; the shambling fell-on-hard-times tale “Chicago” is driven by an insistent drumbeat that sounds like it’s being played on pickle tubs and trash-can lids; the three-sheets, shimmying road-house rockabilly of “Get Lost” sounds like a cousin of Orphans‘ “Lie To Me”. Everything is loose-limbed, skittish, and smells of Marlboros and Irish whiskey. Like all of Waits’ best records, Bad As Me sounds like a drunken, 2am stumble through the rough side of town.
All of that is nice, and would simply sound like a compelling bit of Tom Waits Redux if Waits’ back-to-the-well record didn’t sound so vital. Perhaps that’s because Waits’ glory-days records were so thrillingly vivid to begin with that this return to the sound that, largely, defines his work comes across less like pandering and more like a record borne of those glory days. Or, perhaps, Waits’ sound has always been somewhat anachronistic – we are, after all, talking about a man who sounded like your three-packs-a-day grandpa when he was 24, whose balls may well have dropped in the womb – therefore making it impossible for him to age in one direction or the other. Either way, Bad As Me offers the listener a distilled, focused outline of his sound, while still hiding a few stray surprises up its sleeve – the downright creamy falsetto Waits unleashes on “Talking at the Same Time”, for example, or how pulverizing the profane, stomping “Hell Broke Luce” manages to sound with little more than a wall of homemade percussion and stray blasts of economically-deployed rockabilly guitar. And kudos to Waits for managing to wrangle the voice that angrily barks “how many ways can you polish up a turd?” in “Luce” into something so deeply affecting on each of Bad As Me‘s fractured, closing-time ballads; the aching melody of “Pay Me”, the tale of a washed-up entertainer, sounds instantly familiar upon first listen, and “Last Leaf” and “New Year’s Eve” practically sound like tears hitting a lukewarm beer.
Imbued with Waits’ trademark growl, gallows-humor, and pathos, Bad As Me sounds like a classic Tom Waits album; it’s streamlined, focused, endlessly entertaining, endearingly ramshackle, heartfelt, and Waits’ best album in years. It never feels like a conscious attempt at a comeback, to Waits’ credit, but a sharp distillation of everything the man does right. Some of the songs on Bad As Me are brawlers; some are bawlers; some are indeed bastards. Regardless of their designation, one thing’s for sure: they’re all winners.