Review: Tom Waits “Bad As Me”

After seven years the mad hatter of rock ‘n’ roll returns and doesn’t seemed to have aged one bit

Review: Tom Waits

Raghav Mehta

There is Tom Waits, and then there is the rest of the world. He is the songwriter’s songwriter. But Waits doesn’t operate inside the very rock ‘n’ roll pantheon he’s been ushered into. He’s the mad hatter beatnik too weird and uncompromising for the center stage but too restless and inspired to fade into the woodwork, left fervently pacing the back rooms and basements while his musical peers reduce to weathered, dried-up titans.

After forty years Waits’ mind remains an interminable whirlwind of aural invention brimming with enough junkyard clamor and back alley poetry that it seems as if it’ll keep him howling till the bitter end. And his latest album, “Bad As Me,” co-written by his wife and production partner Kathleen Brennan, finds the self-proclaimed “boat that don’t sink” just as voracious and ecstatic as ever. 

But unlike its predecessor “Real Gone,” “Bad As Me” doesn’t over-indulge this time around. With guest appearances that include Keith Richards and Flea, the man croons, shakes and growls all the way through without missing a beat and not once surpasses the 4 minute mark. By Waits’ standards, it’s a fairly polished album, but it’s not tame by any measure. The opener “Chicago,”  âÄì a bustling din of circus horns and whiskey-soaked blues licks âÄì gallops onward right out the gate. It all sounds like the start of the next great Spaghetti Western as Waits bellows “All aboard!”  

Not unlike much of his material, each track contains a cinematic quality with Waits taking the lead role: the weathered vagrant starving for justice in a weary world overrun with sinners and thugs. Lyrically, Waits has always been too traditional of a storyteller to be topical (with the exception of “Road to Peace” and “Day After Tomorrow”). “Bad As Me” might exist inside a universe of its own but when he doles out lines like “Well we bailed out all the millionaires/They’ve got the fruit/We’ve got the rind/And everybody’s talking at the same time,” you can’t help assume that Waits’ fictional hell-on-earth isn’t all that far off from the one we live in.  

From the carnival whimper of “Pay Me” to the lonely-and-muffled cocktail jazz of “Kiss Me,” Waits actually does more weeping than hollering on “Bad As Me.” Like a man too wise and calloused to wallow in self-pity, there’s a weary resignation in his voice. He sings, sounding defeated and tired: “The only way down from the gallows is to swing/And I’ll wear boots instead of high heels/And the next stage that I am on will have wheels.” It’s a tender tune and undoubtedly one of the most beautiful songs to ever enter his catalog. Even in his most lively moments, like the machine-gun assault of “Hell Broke Luce” or the rhythmic jaunt of “Get Lost,” Waits scats and yelps like some wild-eyed troubadour who couldn’t phone it in if he tried. 

Not too many rock ‘n’ roll giants know how to die out gracefully in their latter years (emcees have even more trouble), but at 61, Waits almost sounds as if he’s only getting younger by the day. He’s the last of a dying breed; a bonafide genius who balances old with the new while pushing great American traditions deeper into a world far too strange and chaotic for the masses. What Waits does is as important as what he refuses to do, and that’s letting time take its toll on him. He excels where the Dylans and Youngs fell short and like a true artist, continues to create work that is daring yet absolutely indelible.

So perhaps the man behind the wheel said it best himself: “Whatever they told you about me/Well all of it’s true/You’re never gonna be without me baby/I’m never gonna be without you.” Well gosh, I certainly hope not.

3 and a half stars out of 4