When Tom Waits was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame earlier this year, he noted, "They say I have no hits and I'm difficult to work with, and they say that like it's a bad thing." For his first studio album of new songs since 2004's Real Gone, Tom Waits seems to have taken ownership of "bad thing," titling his new album, Bad as Me. In Waits' case, to paraphrase James Brown, "bad" means "good" -- real good.
Bad as Me continues Waits' narrative journey, long informed by the likes of Jack Kerouac and Charles Bukowski, disassembling mythical America. The opening cut, "Chicago," is a train-chugging rock ‘n' roll number that ingeniously bridges the Great Migration of the early 1900s and the contemporary symbol of hope. "You know where I can be found, where the rainbow hits the ground," growls Waits. "I'm not alone. I'm not afraid." And we all know how this story will unfold (on both counts).
In a broad sense, Bad as Me parallels Ry Cooder's latest excellent and searing Pull Up the Dust and Sit Down thematically, presenting people who live in the fringe of a Great Depression. Waits, like the characters he creates, is a chronic outsider. And he serves as the perfect narrator.
"Well, it's hard times for some, for others it's sweet," he croons in the cool lounge-noir of "Talking At The Same Time." "Someone makes money, when there's blood in the street."
Waits' brilliant '06 rarities box set, Orphans: Brawlers, Bawlers and Bastards, sums up his work from the groundbreaking Swordfishtrombones on. Bad as Me has its share of "brawlers," straight-out rock compositions, like the escapist "Get Lost," the poignantly angry "Hell Broke Luce" and the in-your-face Stones retort, "Satisfied" (which ironically features Keith Richards on guitar). Gruffly tender, heartbreaking songs such as the sadly beautiful "Back in the Crowd" and the wonderfully bare and foreboding Waits/Richards duet "Last Leaf" balance the record with "bawlers" delivered with a distinctive emotional sincerity.
Again, Waits has assembled a brilliant and eclectic stable of musicians, including longtime mainstays Larry Taylor from Canned Heat and guitarist Marc Ribot, and former collaborators, such as Richards (who first appeared on Rain Dogs) and Los Lobos' David Hidalgo (Franks Wild Years). Keyboardist Augie Meyers and the New Orleans' Preservation Hall Jazz Band's Clint Maedgen and Ben Jaffe join as new members to Waits' barn.
Bad as Me's sound has an uncluttered clarity while retaining amounts of a clang-and-bang texture. On the urging of spouse/collaborator Kathleen Brennan, the record is comprised of concise, three- to four-minute songs. All are vibrant, their delivery and performances energized. Bad as Me easily belongs with Waits' best uncompromised albums that continually make "bad" sound so good.