‘If you dress older when you are not / As you really age you look the same’ is advice Andy Warhol purportedly once gave to Lou Reed, leastways that’s what Reed tells us in ‘Faces and Names’ from Songs For Drella. It’s a statement that could have been coined with Tom Waits in mind. At 25 he sounded, if not quite looked, like he was 50. Now, at 61, he’s more like himself than he ever was. As a kid who favoured Sinatra over Presley, and a 1970s Los Angeleno whose image owed more to ‘50s Beats than ‘60s hippies (i.e., no matter how scruffy he appeared, he wouldn’t be caught dead in denim or sport shoulder-length hair) he was always old before his time. So, being older now suits him. You could even go so far as to say that, by a weird reverse-aging process, subversion of the gravitas that is supposed to accompany grey hair makes it easier for him to indulge his more raucous rock’n’roll side, since he is well past the stage where he might feel he has to worry about what anybody else thinks (if, indeed, he ever did).
His 17th studio album since 1973’s debut Closing Time, and his first collection of new material since 2004’s Real Gone, Bad As Me is a lean, mean belter of a record. Only three of its 13 cuts exceed the four-minute mark. (There are three bonus tracks on the Deluxe edition, all worth hearing, but not worth fretting about missing.) Curiously, despite the fact that it is made up entirely of fresh ingredients, Bad As Me has the feel of a career retrospective Best Of. This is because here, in contrast to say the human beatbox left-fieldism of Real Gone, Waits attempts to embrace his several different voices, so there is something for every segment of his audience.
The method actor in him tacitly acknowledged these divisions in his work in the title of his 2006 three disc, odds’n’sods compilation, Brawlers, Bawlers and Bastards: the first disc consisting largely of old school roots rockers and roadhouse blues growlers, the second of lachrymose barroom ballads, and the third of the more experimental byways of his oeuvre. Well, Bad As Me is a shorter, three-in-one affair, with only the bastards slightly edged out. It can seem that it strives to make nonsense of the ‘two halves’ reading of Waits’ career, which holds that a pivotal switch occurred with the release of 1983’s Swordfish Trombones, from piano-tinkling barfly troubadour to ringmaster of a clangy junkyard orchestra. Both of those personas are manifest here, with some more besides.
Things get off at a frenetic pace with ‘Chicago’, a clattering fast train song boogie ode to the many southern emigrants, black and white, who made the Windy City their destination in search of improving their lot. It could be 1850 or 1950, accommodating travellers on the fabled Underground Railroad route out of slavery, or those who later struck out by more conventional modes of transport. ‘All aboard’ shouts the inspector, and it’s clear we’re in for a bumpy ride on the emotional rollercoaster.
‘Raised Right Men’, in a nod to feminism, posits that ‘It takes raised right men to keep a happy hen’ and then goes on, via introducing an insalubrious cast of male no-accounts, how there ain’t enough of them. The track also subtly serves to remind us that, for all his debauched, ne’er-do-well image, who once spawned a song entitled ‘Better Off Without A Wife’, Waits has long been a happily married man who hasn’t had a drink in ten years (he got his share in early), and whose missus Kathleen Brennan is his co-writer.
Indeed, the trials and rewards of domesticity emerge as a definite theme, as does the inevitability of dissolution and mortality. The title track, a brawler, is a rapprochement acknowledging that both partners in a relationship are equally flawed, and could apply as much to enduring friendship as to coupledom. In ‘Kiss Me’, the affecting bawler which follows it, the singer implores his partner to ‘Kiss me like a stranger once again / I want to believe that our love’s a mystery / I want to believe that our love’s a sin / I want you to kiss me like a stranger once again’, all accented by marimba and double bass amid artificial scratched vinyl cackle. It’s a piquant contrast to the earlier ‘cars and girls’ evocation of the thrill of new love in the jaunty rockabilly of ‘Get Lost’: ‘When you wear that real tight sweater / You know I can’t resist / It’s been that way forever baby / Ever since we kissed / Roll down all the windows / Turn up Wolfman Jack / Please, please love me tender / Ain’t nothin’ wrong with that’, proceedings heightened by a tasty guitar solo form long-time sideman Marc Ribot.
The bankers and warmongers get it in the neck with bitter glee, whether it’s the crooning voice of ‘Talking At The Same Time’ telling us how ‘It’s hard times for some / For others it’s sweet / Someone makes money / When there’s blood in the street’ and ‘We bailed out all the millionaires / They’ve got the fruit / We’ve got the rind’; or the ‘left, right, left’ military marchtime of Waits the rapper disguised as an ex-serviceman asking ‘How is it that the only ones responsible for making this mess / Got their sorry asses stapled to a goddamn desk?’ on ‘Hell Broke Luce’, a distinct bit-of-a-bastard. Found sounds of machine gun fire and exploding bombs, while Ribot trades aggressive dual-guitar twanging with guest Keith Richards, completes the chaotic cacophony.
Richards, who previously made appearances on Waits’ Raindogs and Bone Machine and between whom a mutual admiration society appears to have flourished, contributes to four tracks here. ‘Satisfied’ is a rockin’ hoot, in which a garrulous old-timer spits in the face of death, declaring ‘I will have satisfaction / I will be satisfied / Before I’m gone’, and referencing The Stones’ anti-advertising fuzztone hit with ‘Now Mr. Jagger and Mr. Richards / I will scratch where I’ve been itching’, while one of the aforementioned is within hollering distance. On ‘Last Leaf’, perhaps the most touching ballad of a great batch, ex-choirboy Keef even joins in the chorus of ‘I’m the last leaf on the tree / The autumn took the rest / But they won’t take me / I’m the last leaf on the tree’. You know what it’s like when Keef sings; imagine what it’s like when Old Keef and Old Tom caterwaul in unison.
An exile’s defiant lament ‘Pay Me’, sung from the point-of-view of an old showgirl who is clearly the black sheep of the family (‘They pay me not to come home’), and closer ‘New Year’s Eve’, which incorporates ‘Auld Lang Syne’ in its coda just the way ‘Tom Traubert’s Blues’ did ‘Waltzing Matilda’ all those years ago, nicely round out the weepies. All in all, if you like Tom Waits, you’ll love Bad As Me. If on the other hand, lunkhead, for some cussed reason he doesn’t float your boat, the there’s nothing in the huge variety on show here that’s going to change your goddamn mind on that score.