October 27, 2011

Test Spins: Bad As Me

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Upon one’s first listen to vaudevillian, experimental troubadour Tom Waits’ first album of original music in seven years, Bad As Me, it’s clear that the record is exactly what one would expect from the living legend. It’s heavy. It’s bizarre. It’s gorgeous. It’s funny. Basically, it’s a Tom Waits album. In an era in which artists young and old try to diversify their sound and style with each record to keep things interesting, Waits, always the rebel, is just doing what he’s been doing since the ‘70s and ‘80s. But that’s not a bad thing … it’s not a bad thing at all. In this case, it’s the best thing, because Bad As Me is an excellent record that gives us 61-year-old Waits at his prime in his writing, singing and production. Perhaps a better title for the album would be Badass as Me.

Whether it’s the bluesy poetry of the lyrics, the bulldog growl of Waits’ voice, or the cabaret jazz arrangements, there’s bound to be at least something in any song on Bad As Me that will grab your attention and clutch it for the remainder of the record. On the gloriously maniacal opener “Chicago,” the frantic horns charge through your speakers like a train out of control, hijacked by an outlaw Waits. He snarls “Maybe things will be better in Chicago,” and devilishly wails “All aboard!” by the track’s conclusion. “Chicago” is the perfect introduction to the record; it’s a signal that Waits is back after a lengthy hiatus, and he’s back with a vengeance. His crusade back into the ‘Recently Played’ playlists on our iPods continues with “Raised Right Men,” in which a haunting organ squeals on top of Waits’ signature howl. Things get really crazy on the title track as Waits compiles a list of the things that tick him off, only to reveal with a wink and a smirk that those are traits he possesses. There are times, though, when the album has Waits exhibiting a softer, more pleasant sound. On “Talking at the Same Time,” Waits takes a break from his hoarse yowl and yearns for simpler times with a gloomy falsetto. And on the heartbreaking ballad “Back In the Crowd,” Waits gives a lover permission to let him go once and for all. The combination of raging lunacy on songs like “Bad As Me” and downhearted blues numbers like “Talking at the Same Time” prove that no matter what mood Waits wants to express, it punches us in the gut each time.

The nature of the songs, of course, is held up by the arrangement of the songs, which is endlessly unconventional, but undoubtedly perfect. This is not just thanks to Waits’ decades-long work as one of the most unique artist of his time, but also to his collaboration with some fellow icons on this disk. Flea, of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, sustains the spastic outbursts of the keys and the strike of a very prominent snare drum, with a bass line that’s so bluesy that one imagines Waits doing his thing in a dark jazz club drenched with blue stage lights. The most extensive collaborative effort on the record, however, is that of Waits and Keith Richards. Waits makes the most of his opportunity to work with Richards; Waits even name-drops Richards and Mick Jagger on “Satisfied,” itself a playful retort to the Stones’ “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.” Richards also lends Waits a hand on the nearly frightening “Hell Broke Luce,” a pounding percussion-heavy number that resembles a violent crowd of boot camp soldiers out for retribution; the song even includes an unexpected sound effect of a machine gun firing shots.

The best collaboration between Waits and Richards here, however, is perhaps the lightest and loveliest track on the record; it’s also probably the saddest. On “Last Leaf,” Waits and Richards, two musical icons who have aged before the eyes of many of their fans, serenade lost time: “I’m the last leaf on the tree/The autumn took the rest, but they won’t take me.” After hearing this song, it’s clear that the two aged artists are approaching old age with hesitation and woe. But this song also reminds us that Waits is merely one of the last of music’s greatest artists. He’s the last leaf on a tree of his musical comrades who have come and gone. Luckily, Bad As Me proves that Waits is here to stay.

Original Author: Sydney Ramsden