Bad as Me: Tom Waits and the new jazz.
Bad as Me is Tom Waits fist studio album in seven years and the great news for Tom Waits fans is that it is a proper and decent return to style. On Bad as Me we have the return of that tinkly piano we love so much. There is also more guitar work than more recent albums, and I hear tell Marc Ribot, David Hidalgo and Keith Richards have been recruited to the album to add their own unique brand of guitar flavour to the Tom Waits passion. The stomping carry-on that Waits group conjures on the album is needed to properly carry off the libidinous crushing passion that Tom and Kathleen Brennan have written for our auditory pleasure.
I loved the album right away and fell for it more and more the deeper I listened and the more I thought of how I want to represent each song. here’s my take:
Chicago is a rambling train of a song in which you toss your bindle and run along side to make your jump to freedom. Tom’s gravelly voice is a promise. The promise of love, of hope, of a new life in a new city. He almost sounds out of breath as he sings it, racing to catch up with himself – with ourself. Hope springs eternal, everything old is new again and the race for freedom starts with grabbing your love and starting afresh. This song doesn’t just hold the promise of a new life. It holds the promise of a new album. As Track #1 it holds the dubious task of making us want more (as if we didnt’ already) as well as preparing us for what is to come, and with musical fecundity, Tom ejaculates us into the rest of the album.
I read that Raised Right Men reminds another blogger of the Nighthawkes at the diner era, and I would agree with this assessment. This is familiar Waits, holding our hand through this new territory. This is not to imply a soft option or a break in typical Tom tempestuousness. This song has all the classical depth of Tom Waits with the daub of cool settling over it. Take this one to town and drink it slow baby, cause you’re gonna wanna grind.
Now, firmly planted in our new territory – albeit safe in the arms of our Tom – he seductively whispers Talking at the same time into our ears. Gone is the cut-glass-through-gravel voice and here is a sensual crooner, cross cutting and playing with his own vocals, playing himself off against himself. This song is feathers down the skin of your inner secret self. If you didn’t want to fuck already (and lets face it, we all do when Tom’s tinklin’ the ivory) this is the song that will get the right part hard and the right part wet. We have the low surf guitar, jazz piano a-la-Tom and some saxy horn filling the smoky bar of your mind with memories so real you’ll relive them forever.
Get Lost has a 50’s swing feel, combined with an early rock vibe. That voice (that voice) is more lyrical again, and croons quips and lines paying homage to the songs of the era – “love me tender” and “are you lonesome” and then “let’s get lost” as if the invitation is to follow and lose yourself in that groove of the swing rock style of the retro fifties. Of course, you’re not allowed to just play homage when your Tom Waits (the man invented inventiveness) so there is a deliciously deconstructed Waits-ean nonsense ramble toward the end of this tune giving us that incredible experience of genre crossing / time stepping immersing that somehow lifts and separates you from anything that has gone before it.
We’re resting in a moment of surrealism with Face to the Highway and Tom wants us travelling again. That towns getting old man – and we’re mossless stones. This is a song of lost love, even when nothing exists outside of that love. He chooses the highway, loss and alienation rather than the stifling reality of the place he aint meant to be. This takes us back to the Heart of Saturday night era, and the feel is as real as it was back then. Only touches though – you’ll recognise it, but it isn’t part of the past. Nothing about Tom faces backward. He’s turning his back on the old and he embraces the new. “I’m going away” as he repeats into the horizon at the end of the song.
Pay me is a solo ode to the acting game. Not the false acting game. The real one. The one where there is no money, and parents support you way past your use by date. You stick with it “all the way to the end of the world” refusing to go home or get another job because it eating crow. This is sung with Waits’ lilting grind, that thing he does where he can be oh so light and oh so heavy at the same time. The first time I heard this I was swept along by my tears, and I’m not sure there is a higher compliment you can pay a music man than to say he reached “that spot” with the mouthing of the words.
It’s between you and I again in Back in the Crowd. Tom lets himself be vulnerable and uses acoustic flamenco style guitar to reveal a passionate love that may or may not be unrequited. With so many of his songs where he cuts and bleeds, one gets the feeling we’re watching something deeply secret. A faint distortion and crackle over the top of the guitar and vocals gives us that lost in time and lost in a fog feeling, where we know we are interlopers, but somehow we have also been welcomed as witness. Witness to this human beings declarations of love as he begs for all or nothing. That voice (that voice) creates an intimacy that never fails to surprise me.
Tom Waits absolute genius comes through in the title track Bad as me. This is a free for all of sloping slides and liquid chomping vocals. It has the giant steps stomping over intellectual landscape that Waits does so well, with injections of seductive grizzly chatter as he threatens and excites you with the knowing that you’re the same kind of bad as him (if only)! “they told me you were no good – but I know you’ll take care of all my needs.” The lyrics are non-sensical but they are essentially about the pleasure in finding the other who is the “same kind of bad as me”. This is one of my favourite tracks on an album of favourite tracks. This is a strained, obsessive song – just like fresh throbbing love.
Kiss Me takes us back to that smoky blue bar where we are hunched over whiskey straight that slides down our throats like razor blades and sits on the belly with delicious fire. “I want you to kiss me, like a stranger.” Waits (and Brennan) seduce the lover/other with a plea to kiss in a way that embraces the mystery and the rawness of the stranger other. It’s a plea for the truth of love, that we will always be surprised by our lover, that we can never know them properly and that sameness is a facade used for protection. It’s not that our singer has grown tired of their lover. They want their lover back – the person lost to the folds of familiar is lost to their reflexes, their responses and sensibilities. Surprise me, the cry is. Surprise me with your depths.
I’ve read that Satisfied is an answer to the Stones Can’t get no Satisfaction and I have also heard that it doesn’t quite work. Of course, being a ‘serious’ Waits fan, I’d like to disagree. I think the tune works, and frankly – an answer to that ‘other’ song is long overdue. Its not the other that needs to satisfy… its your belief in your satisfaction that will lead to being satisfied. The song is definitely one of those odd ball Tom songs, but his screeching toward the end saves us all. Saves us from us. Saves us from THAT song.
We’re back in the softness of a gentle life long existential angst with Last Leaf. The end of a life. The end of an era. Facing being the last leaf on the tree is the thing Tom Waits does so well. That earnest simplicity, that plea to life for its sustenance. A promise that if the tree is cut down the leaf will go on, even if it’s in a song. There is a sense of the musical giant speaking about being at the end of a career (though no one is suggesting that) because of the musical references. Here at the end. In love with the song, clinging to the tree. Elements of this reminded me of Leonard Cohen’s Tower of Song – not stylistically of course, but more in the spirit of the lyrics. This song has resignation, Waits-ean hope and that ever-present vulnerability that leaves everything with deep-seated doubt.
We march again to war with Hell Broke Luce. A chant of a song, stomping its way through an anti-war preach. This is a political Waits making a studded plea for the end of beating up on each other. It’s not usual territory for him, although he has been known to make the political statements before (see real gone). the richness of the cadences here bring the marching idea alive in the same way the train was inside us in Chicago.
The album closes with a Tom Waits version of New Years Eve, complete with Auld Lang Syne. This beautiful ballad whispered that we can go now. Back into the world again, wiser and more alive than we were just over an hour ago. He can’t promise that he will be with us, but he can promise that he feels what we feel and he is still there and he will still be there when we need him. He’ll keep writing music as long as we can, so let’s get pissed, wish a happy new year and then get on with it. The style here is a kind of Italian sea shanty, complete with piano accordion. It works completely because on this album it is completely unexpected and nothing like anything else.
And this bring us to the end of a very brilliant album from an artists who rarely makes mistakes. Tom Waits at his best? What more can we ask for?
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