„Soaked in a vat of bourbon, left hanging in the smokehouse for a few months, and then taken outside and run over with a car.” This is how Daniel Durchholz described Tom Waits' voice. A mixture of junkyard love songs and a more melodic rendition Stomp, love him or leave him, Tom Waits leaves an impression. His sixteenth studio album Bad As Me, released in 2011, is one of the many steps the grand old man of sandpaper voice and velvety melody has taken in order to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (which also happened in 2011). I severely doubt, however, that that is his purpose in the music business.
Tom Waits is an enigma to me, a force to be reckoned with. A circus troubadour, a lone piano player in a smoky and seedy bar at 4am on a Sunday night, a colourful character. It is difficult to say, or recall, when I fell for that junkyard cabaret, but it must have been during the more impressionable years, because through thick and thin, I've stuck with the man. Be it the soundtrack of an animated film, his film roles or his music, Waits creates an edge to himself that appeals to me immensely. I would say the key factor here being his way with words, not of an overly sententious manner, but more like a juggling of characters, phrases, and moods. This, however, does not mean that I turn a blind eye to his shortcomings, far from it.
Bad As Me was a pleasant surprise back in 2011, much like Bowie's The Next Day last year. The thing with these semi-active old heroes is that you don't want to expect too much from them, even though you can't wait for the news that yes! A new album! And after listening to it for a few years, both upsides and downsides emerge.
Waits' earlier albums tend to create a weaving narrative or a wholesome story around themselves, as does Bad As Me, in an odd and maybe not quite as transparent way. To me, the 13-track (what an excitingly sinister number!) album is based on a yearly interval, starting with the energised cacophony of Chicago and crescendoing into the serenely calm and tired New Year's Eve. A year is over, an album done and over with, let us rest now. Or rather, should you not want to see it as a year in the life of a slightly mad and very mysterious man, look at is as though at a car chase or an intense stand-off in an action film.
After all, the first bars of Chicago install a sense of paranoia in the audience. Chicago, Chicago, it's safer in Chicago! The calmer Raised Right Men and Talking At The Same Time set the scene, the background for the ongoing chase. And then, as properly balanced albums would have it, another fast-paced and energised track, Get Lost, followed by ballad by ballad by junkyard rock and so on. In Bad As Me, it seems as though Waits is physically drawing his breath inbetween the chaos by slurring (quite beautifully, still) out similar ballads that, in Closing Time (1973) – his first album – broke plenty of hearts. However well narrated, the new album falls victim to the most common of my problems while listening to full albums. It does not stun as a whole and once again I find the odd song that I listen to on repeat dozens of times, but had you asked me about the album before I researched it for this piece of writing, I could not have said much. So, if you're looking for a soundtrack for sulking or as a contrast, a secret rave in your small bedroom, this is album is not for that. Moods change here after every track and usually move from one end of the spectrum to the other.
There are, of course, absolute favourites:
Bad As Me. The title song of the album and refreshingly, it emerges from the menagerie of sound more than halfway through the album. Not quite as outstanding as some of Waits' famous title tracks, but a good one for this album. And catchy with the right kind of lyrics. It is raw and rattling and probably described as a bout of nonsensical brilliance.
Face To The Highway. One of the more calm and ballad-like tracks on the album. I feel that in tracks like these, the often well hid tiredness of Waits rears its head slightly. Then again with Waits, there are always characters and faces and masks in the songs, and the stories told are somebody else's completely. A beautiful song about disillusionment and betrayal, but thanks to the sometimes grotesquely banal lyrics, it did not become quite as corny as it had the potential for.
Satisfied. Now there's a song. A beautifully balanced, slightly vulgar tribute to the grand old masters Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. An intriguing bit of trivia here is that Richards accompanied Waits on this album himself, so all in all, it is quite a close-knit showbiz circle of pals. Now that I'm rewatching the videos to comment on them, it might look as though it's about a senile old man stumbling drunkenly around his backyard. The voice certainly adds to the notion. But do try to overlook that.
And lastly, Hell Broke Luce. A clever wordplay as well as an emotional song with so many layers it's difficult to keep track. After listening to it a number of times, the only way I could possibly describe it is: it is possible to create a heavy metal song without the heavy metal. Take it as a clever wordplay on my part or don't. There are two kinds of Tom Waits, the sensitive and quiet ballad type and the walked-into-a-scrapyard-and-started-making-music kind. Both are grotesque, vulgar and utterly enchanting.
Even though not as big of a masterpiece as, say, Mule Variations (1999) or Bone Machine (1992), there are multiple tracks of high quality in Bad As Me and Waits once again reinforces his rightful place at the top. The answer is blowing in the wind and it is saying that, based on this, there is more to come. In the meantime, must dust off Waits' biography and give it another read.
- Anette Helene Vijar