Tom Waits needs no introduction. Now in his fifth decade of making music, the singer-songwriter has made the arc from nightclub-singer maudlin jazz-and blues in his time at Asylum Records,to the instrumentally eclectic synthesisof Swordfishtrombone and Rain Dogs in the early Eighties, the atmospheric skeletal rhythms of Bone Machine (1992), the backwoods blues and gospel of Mule Variations (1999), and ultimately the quasi-industrial Real Gone (2004).
His first studio full-length in seven years, Bad As Me is an astonishing affirmation of his unfailingtalent. Waits doesn’t necessarily tread new ground, but revisits the eclectic styles he has pioneeredin his career: the martial ‘Hell Broke Luce’, for example, with its semi-barking vocals and aggressive multi-instrumental rhythmic thumps, is strongly reminiscent of Rain Dogs.
But Bad As Me never sounds stale.In fact, Waits’ songwriting ability and innovation is once again confirmed: there isn’t a single weak track in the bunch. Moods shifts define the album, which flits from the smoky, melancholy ballad of ‘Talking at the Same Time’ to the swinging and trombone-filled ‘Get Lost’, to the downtrodden tango inflected lament of ‘Pay Me’. On the roaring ‘Satisfied’, meanwhile, Waits howls over the bluesy guitar riffs of Keith Richards (yes, that Keith Richards).
Album single ‘Bad As Me’ is far and away the standout, its echoing drums and baritone sax outshone only by Waits’ hoarse and near hysteric voice. As usual, Waits’ voice completely dominates the record. Able to convey emotion through the slightest of vocal inflections, it is equally captivating from the husky tones of ‘Back in the Crowd’to the smooth falsetto of ‘Get Lost’. The latter sees Waits chastising of irresponsibility (‘Everybody knows umbrellas will cost more in the rain’) while condemning our uneven application of those standards: ‘We bailed out all the millionaires.They’ve got the fruit, we’ve got the rind.’ What rind we have left, though, is worth spending on Bad As Me.