“The truth is overrated. Avoid it at all costs.”
In a few short months, Tom Waits will turn 62 years young. In January of this year, he released a book of 23 poems. In March, he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. On October 24th, he released his 19th studio album, Bad As Me.
The truth is, at any age, no one is as bad as Tom Waits.
Bad As Me enters popular culture amidst what, in many ways, is a Waits boom. His last studio record, Real Gone, was released in 2004. He subsequently released Orphans: Brawlers, Bawlers and Bastards, a collection of b-sides and oddities, in 2006 and Glitter and Doom, a live album, in 2009. It seems that, despite not releasing a studio record in seven years, Waits has ascended to a new height of renown, thanks in part to the highly acclaimed Orphans, but largely a result of his foray into Hollywood, playing roles in such films as Domino, Wristcutters: A Love Story, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, The Book of Eli and Le Tigre e la Neve. It is for this newfound popularity that Bad As Me stands to be his most commercially successful work yet, but for long-time fans, in waiting since 2004, Bad As Me is the scent of new blood in dry, dusty nostrils.
In the first bar of “Chicago”, the opening track on Bad As Me, one immediately hears the most distinctive quality separating this suite of songs from all the others in his oeuvre: polyrhythm. First, it’s the banjo, horns and piano, then joined by the bass and drums. It is repetitive, driving, shamanic, as if the notes of every instrument are being cast across hot coals, dancing over and into one another, gelling into a densely syncopated rhythm that is at once complex and accessible. But the rhythm does not settle. Instead, it is constantly shifting with each movement of the song, dust rising and swelling under the control of Waits the conjurer as he barks, “maybe things will be better in Chicago,” knowing full well that it wouldn’t matter either way.
“Talking At The Same Time” is a ghostly, exhausted blues dirge where metronomic horns engage with shake-seed percussion and haunting drone to create beautifully textured groundwork upon which Augie Myers’ astounding broken finger piano drizzles like rain. Thick and obscure like late summer mist in a moonlit graveyard, “Talking At The Same Time” exhibits the deceptively simple, incomprehensibly deep production quality of some of Waits’ best and most enigmatic work, executed with a sleepy confirmation of post-“Chicago” hopelessness and the usual effortless artifice.
“Kiss Me”, while not an example of the strong, overriding polyrhythmic aspects of this record, is for the author a standout and a song he could live in, blissfully, for the rest of his life. The only track on the album occupied almost entirely by Waits, with the exception of Marcus Shelby’s bass, “Kiss Me” plays like an early morning meditation on a night that, out of desire and perhaps desperation, never had an end, or simply never happened. “Kiss me like a stranger again,” Waits pleads, “There’s only one thing I’d like you to do / Kiss me … / … I won’t believe our love’s a mystery, I won’t believe our love’s a sin. / Kiss me like a stranger again.” The remembrance of love for one once in it is singular. This fact is echoed by Waits’ sparse, contemplative guitar and piano. Each give ample space to the other and play in conversation, perhaps remembering, and misremembering, once-love to one another, wishing, like everyone once in love has wished, to begin again together at the start. What better way, Waits asserts, than with another kiss, and with a growl and a hiss, he extends a prayer for a fatal peck.
No doubt the best example of the confounding polyrhythm at the center of Bad As Me is the album’s 12th track, “Hell Broke Luce”. So much is going on that the title’s suggestion of chaos is no secret. A big meaty steak in the mouth for all those disciples of Waits’ most cacophonous and insane moments, “Hell Broke Luce” is a mesmerizing and abrasive explosion of percussion, assaulting guitar and enough live artillery samples and military-style barking to force anyone into lockstep. Chanting like he has lulled himself into a trance, inhabiting the body, spirit and history of the modern soldier, Waits’ at times monotonous vocal performance is a terrifying testament to the deep and very real power he possesses as a storyteller, a power that appears to know no discipline, but the only thing that trumps Waits’ ability as a storyteller is his mastery of illusion.
Advised by his wife, co-songwriter and co-producer, Kathleen Brennan, Waits crafted Bad As Me as a short, direct and solid album. “Get in. Get out. No fucking around,” as his wife put it. In pursuit of this aim, he manages to tantalize, fascinate, delight and entrance with colorful yarns of all sorts, touching so often, but so softly, on wounds of hopelessness, despair, and perpetual forlornness, changing in a single measure to themes of celebration, escape and transformation. With guest performances from Keith Richards, Flea, David Hidalgo of Los Lobos and Les Claypool, whom more often than not are present only to thicken the application of color to his canvas, it is clear that Waits set out to make a methodical, deliberate record. A single arrow, carefully cast, to penetrate the center of getting in, getting out and not fucking around, but in the 13 songs and succinct 44:44 of Bad As Me, it is instantly apparent to all who listen that he far surpasses the task. In fact, the truth is not avoided, and especially not at all costs. It is confronted without fear and beheaded like a snake, the blood of which will continue to sting our nostrils, alluring those of many curious others, for what is sure to be a few long years before we hear again of the hands that killed it, and before we hear another whispered word of the conjurer’s spell.
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Stream Bad As Me in its entirety via NPR Music: First Listen.