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Bad As Me
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|13. New Year's Eve|
2011 album from the acclaimed singer, songwriter and actor. Bad As Me, his first studio album of all new music in seven years, finds Tom Waits in possibly the finest voice of his career and at the height of his songwriting powers, working with a veteran team of gifted musicians and longtime co-writer/producer Kathleen Brennan. From the opening horn-fueled chug of 'Chicago,' to the closing barroom chorale of 'New Year's Eve,' Bad As Me displays the full career range of Waits' songwriting, from beautiful ballads like 'Last Leaf,' to the avant cinematic soundscape of 'Hell Broke Luce,' a battlefront dispatch. Like a good boxer, these songs are lean and mean, with strong hooks and tight running times. And there is a pervasive sense of players delighting in each other's musical company that brings a feeling of loose joy even to the album's saddest songs. Bad As Me is a Tom Waits album for the ages.
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The album starts with "Chicago" a roaring blast of horns and fast chops which sees Waits in fine voice and doing a Casey Jones style "all aboard" chant. He follows it by outdoing Nick Cave in the dirty blues stakes with "Raised Right Man" where Waits exclaims "Heavens to murkatroid/Miners to coal/A good women can make a diamond out of a measly lump of coal". Throughout the album Waits serves up a Royal Variety Performance in terms of styles whether it be on the ghostly rolling "Talking at the same time" which is the nearest Waits has come to delivering a falsetto or the whiskey soaked "Last leaf" destined to soundtrack many deep stares into the bottom of a glass where Richards and Waits draw upon all their vast expertise.
In broad terms "Bad as me" is a very approachable and accessible album and certainly those whose "boats are floated" by the experimentation of "Swordfishrombones" with its mix of German cabaret and free jazz leanings may find it too straightforward. Thus for example "Satisfied" is a great rock stomp and will delight live audiences but were it done by anyone other than Waits it could be seen as derivative. Yet as always with the great man appearances deceive. The pounding almost industrial drums on "Hell broke Luce" reveal a blues sensibility that modern music has lacked since Captain Beefheart popped his clogs and the weird imagery of the swirling title track shows his continued ability to challenge.
It is great to see strong song structures back at the heart of his work and when they come in the form of the brilliant "Face the highway" or the gorgeous `Put me back in the crowd" which has been described by Waits as "Elvis meets Jim Reeves" this should be a cause for unbounded celebration. This feeling will be further confirmed after listening to the irrepressible rockabilly of "Get lost" which is almost pure New Orleans funk and guaranteed to storm any party. Waits as ever obliges by giving you an equally exquisite comedown in the form of the classic heartbreak ballad "Pay me" standing in the fine tradition of lonely laments such as "Nobody knows when I'm gone"
Ultimately "Bad as me" is a fiercely intelligent and savvy album which profitably raids the junkyard of American music. Tom Waits is certainly a magpie but he takes this old base metal and forges something that is indefinably his own. This rare ability is fully recognised by his contemporaries where Elton John has recently hailed Waits as "the Jackson Pollock of song" and Neil Young said of him at Waits induction to the Rock n Roll Hall of Fame that 'I will say that this next man is indescribable and I'm here to describe him... this man is a great singer, actor, magician, spirit guide, changeling and performer for you.' After a seven year silence the return of Tom Waits with the truly excellent "Bad of Me" brings a warm feeling and the knowledge that the world has just become a significantly better place.
In "Bad as me, " Waits hammers more nails into the cross on which fans are hooked. "Kiss me" is a beautiful song -- I sensed Waits was singing to the piano that's sobering-up after endless nights of drinking. The wildness of "Satisfied" --doubtless music lovers are never satisfied, more is always desired, and Waits is "grieving satisfaction," & its fairly sensible to believe Mr. Wait's will be "carousin" when he's a "thousand."
'Ya gotta inject some "Bad as me" into the madness of lousy jobs, failed relationships, etcetera, and one cannot but enjoy "Last Leaf," listen to the last gasps of a reflective life hanging-limp upon a branch, laugh when Waits says he's "been here since Eisenhower," and I for one believe the artist has found who "puts flowers on a flower's grave."
This is well-developed, even unusually burnished music, and in clear sound. There's plenty of the customary howling at the moon, but the sentiments are equally rich in depth, levity, wit and craft. At least in being one of his best-finished collections, "Bad as Me" outshines "Mule Variations," "Blue Valentine," or ...pick your fave.
Yet it's still the same old Waits, parlaying his Satchmo caterwaul to the hilt, reeling off various voices: the stumbling wino ("Last Leaf on the Tree"; "Face To The Highway"), a shambling Howlin' Wolf ("Chicago"), and a brogue Leonard Cohen to welcome New Year's Eve. Smokey Robinson's falsetto is invoked, of course minus any sweetness, in Everybody's "Talking at the Same Time," while, bewildered, he watches his girl leave, "...and there's no more `next time'."
So this is a winner for its wide musical range: from calypso/ranchero ("Back in the Crowd") to a cool vocal bounce that livens some otherwise tired lines ("You're never going to be without me, baby, I'm never going to be without you"). There is a decidedly un-plaintive "Get Lost" that's galaxies from Chet Baker's despair-filled song of like title; and in "Satisfied" Waits takes a wonderful go at rockabilly, with organ phrasings recalling "99 Tears," a '60s hit by ? and the Mysterians. While the whip in Waits's yelp saves some forgettable lines, he cries into his drink to convey convoluted, even atrophied sentiments ("...kiss me like a stranger once again"). Women who'd as soon retch at his grungy invitation for them to "Kiss Me" will no doubt spot the gruff, Kid Shelleen-like veneer masking those wistful longings.
All told, though, Waits is Waits, and here as ever we are treated to his take on the raunchy and raucous, such as in "Satisfied." In his brief opener, (Maybe things will be better in) "Chicago," he channels the longings for something better of down-and-out sharecroppers--not to mention yours and mine. "Raised Right Men" sounds by turns near-comical and outraged, virtually inventing a genre unto itself with a quasi-feminist lament about the dearth of righteous men--those, that is, who can keep "a happy hen." Complexity is never far from Waits, and the CD's eponymous track again evokes joy and surprise both, as he's found someone who partakes of his own, essential stuff: badness ...no doubt for want of a better term for his raving self.
The closest we get to serious is in the soul-tearing yet understated "Face to the Highway." Again, nothing comes plain or direct when he declares he's about to "...turn my face to the highway, I'll turn my back on you." A reason never emerges, but his longings are likened to the sky wanting a bird, the ocean a sailor, a clock wanting time as the walls of a prison want a solitary man. Moving ways to allude to gut-level yearning.
Keith Richards adds sharp musical contours on the opening track, "Hell Broke Luce" and "Satisfied," as well as backing vocals to "Last Leaf (on the Tree)." This lament is no "You've Got the Silver," but its affecting paean, its wail at the merciless wheels of time, invokes much the same eternal spaces.
Waits's masterpiece, so strongly recommended.
Caveat emptor: Three "bonus" tracks can be had only on the CD's deluxe and digital deluxe versions; just how these differ eludes me, but so said his site, in response to my inquiry. Contrived on the CD's release, it presumes that those who buy jazz, rock or classical CDs will forget that bonus tracks are post-inception afterthoughts - and hardly money-grabs to get fans to buy the item twice. A cheap trick, accounting for my four stars, not five.