On First Listening to “Bad As Me”

by Brendan Strong

Tom Waits new studio album, “Bad as Me” is released next Monday, but today they circulated codes to allow people to stream the album online. I got my codes today! So, these are my initial impressions, for those who haven’t heard, or those who just want to get an idea of what it’s like. You can listen yourself by visiting http://www.badsame.com and clicking a link to request a code.

A caveat: I’ve heard the album once as I write this, so this post doesn’t reflect a concentrated analysis. More, just the excitement of a new Tom Waits album.

This is very much a Tom Waits album. In many ways, it reflects those that went before, with a mix of heavy, clanging rhythms and softly-sung ballads. At the same time, it is very new, with a sound that sounds not so much as a progression, but a conflation of sounds and ideas from Bone Machine, Mule Variations and Real Gone. That said, it is not derivative in any way. It is new but recognisable: no one else would do this (or maybe, only few others would get away with it).  It feels like Waits made up, discovered or patched up different sounds, and now he’s sticking them together to see what happens. And what happens is pretty striking.

We begin with Chicago, a blues-driven train, reminiscent of the songs from Muddy Water’s Hard Again: it punches you in the guts, then grabs your head to scream into your ear. Or perhaps you bend your own ear, lying under a train that has knocked you over, counting the roar of the wheels as a brutal, hypnotic rhythm drags you into the album.   Of course, the Voice is here, bellowing away in full form.  It’s full of those “leaving” references – you’re setting out for something new.  The song also serves a similar role to Singapore in Rain Dogs: It’s telling you that this is going to be something very different. Where Bone Machine was infused with punk, Mule Variations with folk and Real Gone with scratching and beat box sounds, this album is shot through with that big-sound blues.

Raised Right Man is another blues number, with a more steady beat; It’s reminiscent of the Boom-Thump-Thump of of Lucinda (which appeared on Orhpans). The Chicago train has passed, and you got up, and with deliberate steps are heading for a bar to get a drink. You feel every bone juddering movement that you make – and you continue to make them voluntarily. As those who know me for a amateur-feminist-dad-of-2-daughters I’m quite happy to see this one being about the man of a relationship being no good. Waits is kind of playing with years of successful blues wailing about women to point out that damnit, often enough, a woman does her best, but a man just ain’t raised right, and so brings his own destiny upon himself.

Talking At The Same Time takes a more jaunty, melancholy, New Orleans meets Rag Time approach. It has that falsetto voice that’s been round since Bone Machine (Dirt in The Ground). To me, Waits’ falsetto is haunting. Here, there is a strange effect as horns and a piano with a syncopated rhythm act something like a tide in the background, providing a back-and-forth movement to this steady, reedy, but solid voice.

So far, he’s really let himself go with songs that must have been crafted, but sound like they’ve just been belted out.  As he says in Get, “I don’t want to feel all cooped up”.  This picks up the pace again, with more uneven rhythms that push the song on, a bouncer or bully boy picking a fight with the instrumentation, trying to rise it – challenging it to keep up. It fights back admirably. The voice, is in its role of instrument here, egging both on to see how the fight will turn out.

Face to the Highway slows us down another bit, an anthemic-ballad, with a sort of rasping 50’s tremolo guitar sound.  Quite haunting, the sound put in my mind the idea of driving on a hot day along a long straight road. In Foreign Affairs, Waits recounted a story from On The Road (in Jack and Neal, being Kerouac and Neal Cassidy with a couple of nurses they picked up driving along a highway, taking drugs and getting up to all sorts of high-jinx); here it feels like the same guy, older now is driving along the same road, with his roots a little further into the ground, but the same sense of dislocation from other peoples’ worlds. Similar to Big in Japan, he studies these pairs again (remember in Big in Japan, he had the stripes, but not the tie? Here, it’s that the cradle wants a baby)

Pay Me unwraps one of Waits’ often overlooked styles – the drunken ballad. Think something like Innocent When You Dream, a lilting melody that sways from side to side as it staggers through your brain. I really enjoy these kind of songs, and am quite enamoured with this one.  We’re back also to those characters who find themselves distant from others; wondering what to do next, lonesome. In this case, like Frank’s Wild Years, we’re listening to someone who hasn’t quite cracked the showbusiness goldmine (indeed one line tells us “They pay me to stay away”)

Back in the Crowd has been out about a week at this stage – it’s a Waits ballad with the soft guitar and the rasping, but whispering, vulnerable voice. It continues that loneliness, but this time it seems directed at someone (rather than the town or the people, like so many others); this is a bit of a heartbreaker.

The title track – Bad As Me – is a return to some heavy-rhythm blues, replete with horn sections and balls-end guitars. In Back in The Crowd, he beseeched someone that if they no longer loved him, they should put him back in the crowd. In Bad As Me, it sounds like they did, and they really pissed him off. In the trademark roar, he points out (again, thematically similar to Big in Japan), “You’re the head on the spear/You’re the nail on the cross”. Another lyrical touch I like is the chorus actually says “You’re the same kind of bad as me”, which really appeals to me for some reason. Also, there’s a breakdown with Waits talking at parts – something ironic and maybe a bit piss takey, but in a good way.

Kiss Me brings us back to that Waits classic ballad, seemingly set very late at night, after a long night. An ashtray trying to woo a beer glass, but with much more beauty than this crude description.  There is a gorgeous strain here between love for a loved one and the memory of those first electric flirtations and physical contacts, encapsulated beautifully in these lines

Kiss me
I want you to kiss me
Like a stranger once again
Kiss me like a stranger once again
I want to believe that our love’s a mystery
I want to believe that our love’s a sin
I want you to kiss me like a stranger once again

This really is something Waits can do better than anyone else.  Full of real sentiment, the tension between real feelings is just delicately (yes, delicate, despite the voice) described.

Satisfied brings back Junkyard Tom, from somewhere around the Bone Machine era, but with the instrumentation and beats of Real Gone.  His howling voice leads a junkyard choir (sorry – couldn’t help it), consisting of horns, harmonica (that tough, meaty Muscelwaite sound so beautifully brutally used in Mule Variations), guitars and keyboards.

The only song I wasn’t taken with immediately was Last Leaf, which slows us down again, with the quite guitar and rasping voice. Using the analogy of a leaf on a tree, Last Leaf is the one left hanging through the seasons and the years. It may grow on me later, but I feel it’s bordering on sentimentality. It hurts me to say this, but I guess this is a sort of “first listen” review.

Moving on, we get back to some noise. Hell Broke Luce is a classic sort of loud, brutal Tom Waits song shot through with absurdity. I think I detect some influence of Les Claypool here (from Primus, and a past collaborator on songs and such), it has this touch of angry satire:

Big fucking ditches in the middle of the road
You pay a hundred dollars just for fillin’ in the hole
Listen to the general every goddamn word
How many ways can you polish up a turd

There’s also a breakdown, where it feels like the rhythms and the  instruments, still beating the crap out of each other, have to take  a breather, leaving only a horn exhaling for a second or two, before they each realise they other’s guard is down and raise those fists again to start slogging at each other.

And, then to see us away, a waltzy, folky ballad, with the rasping voice waves us goodbye. New Years Eve gives us these vignettes, moments in various lives; interspersed with a chorus of Auld Lang Syne – I love these touches in Tom Waits songs – the references to older songs or older times in the middle of very contemporary moments. The rasping, broken down voice feels like it cannot go much further. It does, and it conjures this magic. Something only Tom Waits could do – or perhaps, only Tom Waits could get away with.