The ability to surpass twenty records and lose nary a lick of character and assuredness is a rare talent. Many musicians waver and tumble as they try to walk the tightrope of same and new—stay too much the same and he’s boring, stuck in a rut. Change too much, and he’s lost what made him special in the first place. This has never been a problem for Tom Waits, the strange, one-heart-two-heads entity who saunters between gravelly, broken ballads and rollicking freak-show rock without ever losing sight of his singular ethos. Everything Waits is wildly different, but always somehow the same, always essentially him.
His 22nd record, Bad As Me, is this entirely, serving an assortment of different delectables that all leave that same smokey Waits aftertaste. With contributions from such notables as Keith Richards, Les Claypool, and Flea, along with the help of his family—wife Kathleen Brennan has been his songwriting partner since Swordfishtrombones, and son Casey played drums on the majority of the record—Waits has turned out a varied, masterful addition to his catalogue.
The album’s opener, “Chicago,” is a frantic tarantella peppered with sharp blues licks, all laced together with Waits’ signature growl. “Maybe things will be better in Chicago,” he repeats over and over, as the song rises to a frenzied crescendo. It’s an appropriate introduction to a record fraught with all sorts of yearning, and it effectively wallops any fears that Waits’ newest venture will be anything but classic, calloused Waits.
Three songs in, he swaps his gravelly howl for a soft croon on “Talking At The Same Time,” a track that’s positively Lynchian. It’s that slow hip-hypnotizing sort of lounge sound that makes you wonder if that bourbon swirling stranger at the next table has some murderous chill dormant in his marrow. And is this not the essence of Waits—the ability to inject just the right amount of strange into his storytelling, the perfect measure of vaudeville into his vision? If you listen to Tom because you want the world to feel seedy and sinister (but kind of thrilling), he will not disappoint here.
A highlight in this vein: The title track, “Bad As Me.” It’s a celebration of mutual grit, conjoined sin, phenomenal bad guy love. It jolts to life with a series of metaphors—“You’re the fly in the beer / you’re the key that got lost,” and so on—followed by a passionate caw: “YOU’RE THE SAME KIND OF BAD AS ME.” Accusations that at first seem less than flattering morph into the most sultry of love songs, punctuated with devilish utterings (“No good, you say / Well, that’s good enough for me,” interrupts the snaky, satan-y vocals à la half of Rain Dogs).
Those who prefer he-of-the-lovelorn-ballad Tom will be pleased, as well. A decent chunk of the album is devoted to slow, somber declarations of love, weariness, and general malaise. The nearly brogue-ish “Pay Me” is a tired testament to a life on the road (“You know I gave it all up for the stage / They fill my cup up in the cage”), and “Kiss Me” is a scratchy, stripped, piano and bass-backed yearning for the lost thrill of a first kiss. It’s about as pre-rock as it gets.
This record feels like a stand, as Waits’ work nearly always does. A stand against heartbreak, against the march of time, against mediocrity, against war, against a failing system. The only place Bad As Me wavers is in it’s decision as to how best face its (sometimes) invisible enemies. This is a good thing—the wild antihero essence of Waits is staunch, but we get to see it seep out in multiple ways. Bad As Me is tinged with a restlessness that sidles between resignation and panic in equal measure; at times, Waits seems a bent and broken man, hunched over a piano, chock-full of lament. At others, he bounds to his feet, howling like a cornered animal. Throughout it all, it still feels like essential, singular Waits, like moody and manic are two sides of one very marked coin. It’s this exactly-the-same-but-totally-different duality that makes Tom Waits remarkable, and as such, Bad As Me is exactly what it should be.