Tom Waits’ newest album, Bad As Me, feels like a nice change from boring ol’ Rock & Roll. In fact, it’s everything but! As one goes from track to track, there’s soul, jazz, folk, some Spanish-sounding ballads, and more. Tom Waits has always been a versatile artist, and he sure shows it on his newest offering.
Take the opening track, “Chicago.” It feels like the studio engineer hit “record” just a few seconds after the band started playing, and you’re a little late to the party. It’s disconcerting, but (somehow) it’s also pretty cool sounding. After a moment of twangy banjo and sax, the REAL horns come in with a blast. The drums start shuffling, and Waits comes in with a bluesy growl in his voice. The lyrics are bluesy, too, all about leavin’ home and moving to the big city of Chicago.
A few tracks later, the song “Get Lost” comes on with a clap and thud. Remember how I said this album was everything but Rock & Roll? This track is the exception. However, the “Roll” is necessary for accuracy; this song brings to mind early 50’s-style rockabilly, with a fast beat and lots of jazzy playing. Tom’s lyrics could be sung just as easily by a teen with slicked back hair wearing a biker jacket, and that’s how they’re written. This song screams of teenagers’ hormones, and how Tom just wants to run off and “get lost” with his girlfriend. It’s easy to forget the guy singing this is 63, there’s so much energy.
Of course, the whole album isn’t just potent blues and jazz songs; there are a few beautiful ballads, like “Pay Me.” A mournful reflection on the trials of touring as a musician, this song shows that Waits has been tried and pushed to the limits by his career touring. This is a song about the pain and exhaustion that comes with touring, and how it ends up being unsatisfying. “They pay me not to come home,” he sings, and their money keeps him on the road until he’s nearly finished. Musically, “Pay Me” is quite diverse; a finger-picked Spanish guitar leads the melody for most of the song, with an accordion and violin holding the harmony in the distance. At the end, a piano comes in and takes over his vocals with a few twists and turns. It has to be twisty to match his vocals, because otherwise there’s no way a piano could match the contours and inflections of his voice on this track.
There’s one track, “Hell Broke Luce,” that’s just terrifying. It’s a song about war, and how horrifying it gets for those on the front lines. The tribal-sounding drums, distorted bass riffs (as played by Flea from RHCP), and growling, demonic vocals add up to create something extremely unsettling. The lyrics also contribute to the uneasy feeling, with some disturbing imagery painted out for the listener. However, the song keeps bringing me back to listen again and again. It’s just another example of Waits’ ability to play any style, and to play it well.
Directly preceding “Hell Broke Luce” is the song “Last Leaf,” coming in with surprising beauty. It’s a ballad, with Tom reflecting on how he’s managed to survive this long when so many of his peers haven’t. What makes it noteworthy is that Keith Richards plays guitar and sings backing vocals on this track, someone who certainly knows what the song is about. Both Waits and Richards have been playing music and abusing their bodies for a long, long time, but are still alive and surviving. Now it’s their duty to introduce new artists to the job, and their influence on culture is beginning to show – something I imagine would be slightly unsettling to someone who’s still alive to see it. This song sums their feelings up nicely, and feels very modest – almost like a confession.
Overall, this album is an eclectic and exciting collection of all the things that have influenced today’s music. Each track is drastically different, but somehow they manage to sit with each other nicely. When I listen to Bad As Me, I feel like I’m listening to a timeless Classic Album: one that music snobs and casual listeners alike keep hearing about, like Dylan’s Blood On The Tracks or something by Miles Davis. When I read about music like that, I get an idea of what such a Classic Album should sound like. When I put on Bad As Me, I hear that quality in it. I know it’s (mostly) not Rock & Roll, but I like it.