We all wake up in the morning and the thought runs through our minds (a flash for some and a longer consideration for others), “What will I wear today?” I wonder if Tom Waits wakes up and decides which voice to put on. There’s the sweet crooner’s dulcet sounds found in “Johannesburg, Illinois” (the shortest and most romantic love song ever made) or “Hold On” from Grammy winner, Mule Variations; the manic circus barker from works like “The Black Rider” or “Step Right Up”; and the whiskey and cigarettes desperate growl of songs like “On the Nickel”. Then there’s the one like a cannonball belching from the devil’s own diaphragm, this in counterpoint to the soft educated babbling he saves for interviews and some of his movie roles (look up the Fernwood Tonightinterview after he dribbles through “The Piano Has Been Drinking” – it’s a classic).
Eclectic and eccentric are words that were made for rare artists like Tom Waits and this can be clearly seen on his newest offering, Bad as Me. New Years is past and the Grammy Awards as well, but this still tops the list of 2011 albums, in my humble opinion. I have to admit, it wasn’t my favourite the first time I heard it. I mean, the critics and my fellow Tom Waitsians had blown it up, Rolling Stone claiming “it doesn’t get much better than this” and calling it number 23 of the top 50 albums of the year. But compared to some of my old favourites, like Rain Dogs and Swordfishtrombones, I was skeptical of all of the hype.
The first offering of the album, “Chicago”, uses paired horns rhythmically like many producers would use a rhythm guitar or piano chording. This crisply articulated “rhythm horns” technique appears frequently throughout the album, as does some wonderful baritone sax work and train-like harmonica playing. Waits uses his gravel voice here.
In the next song he uses a more plaintive tone, almost whining in the chorus. “Raised Right Men” has some strange ‘80s organ shots as well. Flea plays bass but, sadly, you’d never know it without the album notes.
“Talking at the Same Time” features Waits’ falsetto and sad whammy bar guitar chords and then, in contrast, he puts on a manic, almost squeaky voice for the jitter-bugging “Get Lost” which features Chuck Berry inspired guitar. Then he turns haunting with the lament “Face to the Highway”.
In “Pay Me” we hear the sounds of a Parisian café – accordion, mandolin and violin – and he sings the blue thoughts of troubadours through the centuries: “They pay me not to come home/ keeping me stoned…you know I gave it all up for the stage/ they fill my cup in the cage/ it’s nobody’s business but mine when I’m low”. That poetic voice that brought Waits attention in the 70’s has never left. He was to be the piano-playing Springsteen, but he never received – or perhaps he avoided – the road of the pop star. But he still made it to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame last year, inducted by none other than Neil Young, a kindred poetic soul. This is the best ballad on the album.
“Back in the Crowd” has a smooth Latin feel, and then “Bad as Me”, the title track, returns to the same manic tones from “Get Lost”, a voice on the edge of breaking, as if the mind was, too. “Kiss Me” is a stripped down melancholy ballad and the multiple personality voice takes on yet another role in this one man play. Its informal, live off the floor feel is endearing.
The next three songs include guest appearances by Keith Richards. All three tracks also have long time Waits-band guitar genius Marc Ribot in the credits, too, so it is not always clear where Richards ends and Ribot starts. Throughout the album, Ribot, who, in earlier albums tended to play in modal scales more commonly found in the music of Eastern Europe or Asia, stays pretty much in less ear-challenging modes. Ageless and seemingly timeless, Richards even attempts to sing in the perhaps too fitting “Last Leaf”: “I’m the last leaf on the tree/ the autumn took the rest/ but they won’t take me…I fight off the snow/ I fight off the hail/ Nothing makes me go”.
The best non-ballad on the album is “Hell Broke Luce”. Flea and Richards are listed in the credits, but up front and center is Waits on vocals and explosive percussion. Look up the live bootleg video, if you can, where Waits sings solo on stage while rhythmically pulverizing a cinder block with a hammer, and that’s the kind of spirit in this song. Waits returns to thematically familiar territory: the fate of the soldier. He’s dealt with this in the past (“Shore leave”, “A Soldier’s Things”) but without being cheesy (sorry Springsteen). This is more like a spoken word performance, also more familiar territory from pieces on past albums (“Frank’s Wild Years”, “Eyeball Kid”) and no one does it like Waits. More swearing and anger than normal, Waits is spitting nails at the President, the generals, and the establishment; it’s good to see that the 62 year old hasn’t lost his edge.
The album ends with “New Year’s Eve” which slides into “Auld Lang Syne”, back in that Parisian night club style. Yet another voice to end the recording and end a year. Maybe there was no Grammy for Tom Waits this time, but there’s always the next album. And, no, it wasn’t my favourite CD at first, but haven’t you ever put something on in the morning, tossed it aside, only to put it on and love it a bit later? It went something like that.