Tom Waits is at his morbid, bizarre best on 'Bad as Me'
By NICK TAVARES
STATIC and FEEDBACK Editor
At his best, Tom Waits is the caretaker of the gnarliest haunted house in the state, set off about 20 minutes from the heart of the city, through windy roads and open year round. There are no fake spiderwebs or teenagers in clown masks jumping out, but there are authentic, creaking floor boards, weird drips in the corner, and by the end, everyone is dripping in a cold sweat.
On Bad as Me, his first new music since 2006’s Orphans: Brawlers, Bawlers and Bastards, Waits frantically runs through sounds and styles. The opening “Chicago” is Waits’ warped take on that city’s jazz scene of the early 20th century. “Get Lost” is the dark underbelly of a 1950s sock hop. “Kiss Me,” aided by jazz flourishes and the ancient crackle of vinyl, finds Waits at his sentimental best. The twisted shouts, frying pan drums, trumpet and 10 watt guitar on “Bad as Me” plays a manic update to his own “Big in Japan.”
That blending of genres, of having rock and roll, jazz and blues mixing in unconventional tempos, are what put Waits in a class alone. He doesn’t take the rhythms so much as he plucks the emotion and intentionally casts it in uncomfortable light, giving the crevices more time than they would have otherwise.
But that’s just on the surface. At his best, he makes listeners uncomfortable, clashing sounds and decades together underneath his froggy delivery, but he has point of view and perspective. Like Hunter Thompson or William Burrows, the true message and power can seem a bit lost under the sheer weight and originality of the style.
And, beginning with Orphans, Waits has added a bit of a political edge to the clanging of the kitchen sink in his tunes. Little pearls of wisdom and anger pop up across the record, as on “Talking at the Same Time,” when Waits opines, “We bailed out all the millionaires. They got the fruit, we got the rind.”
In a microcosm of the second half of his career, Waits hits on all his strengths and delivers his best track in years, “Hell Broke Luce,” as demented and twisted as three minutes and 17 seconds can be. The way Waits’ vocals jump once again put him at the forefront of new sounds, etching out new territory. Big, distorted guitars that are so channel specific they’re startling via headphones. He doesn’t hear and think music the way most do, and never on this record is it more evident than here.
On “Hell Broke Luce,” Waits turns a tale of a broken, angry war vet that’s propelled by violent percussion, mangled guitar and blunt, vivid lyrics:
“When I was over here I never got to vote
I left my arm in my coat
My mom she died and never wrote
We sat by the fire and ate a goat
Just before he died he had a toke
Now I’m home and I’m blind
And I’m broke
What is next?”
Cutting through machine guns and guitar blasts from the nether regions, Waits has a tale of a guy who serves as the mascot for every American ruined by war in the 21st century, a guy who’s lost his job, home family, friends, several body parts, and most of all, his hope.
But through the morbid language and music, Waits finds a way to make it all disturbingly funny. Through the course of the song, the narrator is pulled from his chef job, is deafened by a bomb, digs ditches for the army, becomes addicted to meth, has his face blasted and loses an arm while his buddies and his mom die. It’s an incomprehensible amount of misfortune. But he delivers with a measured anger that becomes purposefully monotonous, and caps it all with that direct query:
“What is next?”
What is next? With the best of Waits’ music, that question is never answered predictably.
E-mail Nick Tavares at email@example.com