Sound: It's been 7 years since Tom Waits last released a studio album. Perhaps it was his recent induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame that inspired him to work a new album. But for those wondering if he's mellowed since he turned 60, don't worry, he hasn't.
His albums in the past have had some kind of theme or recurring motif to them. Whether it's the "urban drifters'" perspective on "Rain Dogs" (perhaps his finest work), or the twisted and backwater blues on "Bone Machine" and "Mule Variations", or from the viewpoint of an emotionally disturbed man like in "Blood Money", or the frequent vocal percussion on "Real Gone" (which was also his only album not to feature any piano). This album doesn't seem to have a particular feel or motif to it, but rather its an amalgamation of all his previous work, touching on all the elements that have made Waits quietly one of the most brilliant musicians of the past 30 years. There is of course, his unique gravely voice (more on that in a minute), pounding percussion ("Bad As Me", "Hell Let Luce"), blaring horns ("Chicago"), beautiful ballads ("Back In The Crowd", "Last Leaf"), and infectious grooves ("Satisfied", "Get Lost"). Waits has always mixed styles like rock, blues, folk, jazz, and even some elements of Vaudeville with ease, and "Bad As Me" is no different.
On top of that, he is helped by perhaps one of the best collection of performers he's had in the studio. Of course there are Marc Ribot (guitar) and Larry Taylor (guitar, bass- formerly with Canned Heat) who have worked and toured with Waits for forever and a day now. On multiple tracks, there's blues harmonica great Charlie Musselwhite, David Hidalgo (Los Lobos), and the man the myth the legend and Waits' good friend, Mr. Keith Richards (who has recorded with Waits in the past). But there is also a 2-off appearance by Flea ("Raised Right Men", "Hell Broke Luce") and a 1-off by Les Claypool ("Satisfied").
None of them are really featured or put on a pedestal. They may go unnoticed if it were not for liner notes. They seem to be there to rally behind Waits' flag and blend beautifully into his sound, rather than rise above it, which only further adds a cohesiveness and drive to the album. // 8
Lyrics: The best description of his voice came from critic Daniel Durchholz who described it as being "like it was soaked in a vat of bourbon, left hanging in the smokehouse for a few months, and then taken outside and run over with a car." Gravely doesn't do it justice. Perhaps it's the closest thing to sounding like "Howling Wolf" since, well, "Howling Wolf".
But Waits has done what every great singer has done, he does what he can with it and wields it like it's his best weapon. He can still growl it out ("Hell Broke Luce"), deliver a smoky semi-whisper ("Back In The Crowd"), or deliver it in an oddly pleading tone ("Bad As Me").
Although, it does sound like he pulls his punches a bit with his voice this time around. He doesn't go to extremes like he sometimes does. There's no extreme growlers (a la "Filipino Box Spring Hog", or the better known "Going Out West"), or anything real whispery (the Grammy award winning "Hold On"). It's definitely still Waits in his own way, and he touches on most everything, but vocally he sits with his feet dangling off the edge of the cliff, he never seems to dive headlong off it.
Lyrically, he is as cunning and shows his wry sense of humor as much as he ever does. He can still take the viewpoint of a drifter ("Chicago", "Hell Broke Luce", "Get Lost"). Age is also comes into play whether it's poking at the youth ("Raised Right Men") or himself ("Satisfied", "Last Leaf").
The best track on the album is probably "Satisfied". On top of it's catchy groove, he pokes fun at The Rolling Stones "Satisfaction" while claiming he will find that satisfaction in way that sounds like he's challenging Keith and Mick in a duel, even as Keith is on guitar behind him. Brilliant. // 7
Overall Impression: "bad As Me" is to Tom Waits what "From The Cradle" was to Eric Clapton. Clapton found a whole new audience after his legendary "Unplugged" album, and then took that new audience and brought them into his world showing them the blues with "From The Cradle". In Waits' case, his surprising but well deserved HOF induction surely got some people's attention, and now he's bringing them into his world with "Bad As Me".
This will be Waits' 17th studio album in his storied career. For the fanboys, "Rain Dogs" is often regarded as his crowning achievement (I agree) and the order of the rest is pretty much open for debate (maybe "Mule Variations" at #2?). Despite listening to this 3 times through on the day it came out, I think its safe to say its no "Rain Dogs". But in the top 5 of all his albums? Quite possibly. Liek all fine wine, gotta give it time to sit and age before you can really tell just how good these things are.
What is true is that this is his most accessible album to date. That is, if you want to give good ol' Tom Waits a try, start here. It sounds foreign and bizarre to those who haven't heard it, but to those who know Waits and his history, he isn't really experimenting or going to any extremes here. He finds a nice sound somewhere in the middle while remaining true to his form.
In other words, if you already love Tom Waits, there's a lot to love here. If you haven't yet fallen in love with the best hidden genius in rock history, you have no excuse not to at least give him a chance now. // 8