[sic] Magazine

Tom Waits – Bad As Me

Anyone thumbing through Tim Adams ‘s revealing interview with Tom Waits in last weeks Observer (23/10/11) should also read the subsequent comments upon it by Waits aficionados who are a particularly articulate bunch. One such poster summarizes his Waits infatuation with the immortal line: “Tom Waits. He’s the Dad I never had, the brother who wouldn’t play with me, and the sister with the strangely deep voice” .

You know what he means. Tom Waits is both a one-man history of American music but also a vivid reflection of our lives’ ribald joys, drunken disasters, tender moments and defeated heartaches. He is a first class honours American maverick and the most genuinely original artist in modern rock music. On Bad As Me , he is back in overpowering form and rocking harder than he has done for years.

“Anyone who has ever played a piano,” Waits has previously stated, “would really like to hear how it sounds when dropped from a 12th-floor window” and on his 17th album he does on occasions make a mighty racket. He is helped in this task by the presence on the album of his wife Kathleen Brennan , guitarist Marc Ribot , Flea from the Red Hot Chilli Peppers and a previous collaborator, that other old blues reprobate Keith Richards .

The album starts with ‘Chicago’, a roaring blast of horns and fast chops that sees Waits in fine voice and doing a Casey Jones -style ‘all aboard’ chant. He follows it by outdoing Nick Cave in the dirty blues stakes with ‘Raised Right Man’ where Waits exclaims ‘ Heavens to murkatroid/Miners to coal/A good women can make a diamond out of a measly lump of coal ‘.

Throughout the album Waits serves up a Royal Variety Performance in terms of styles whether it be on the ghostly rolling ‘Talking At The Same Time’, which is the nearest Waits has come to delivering a falsetto, or the whiskey soaked ‘Last Leaf’ destined to soundtrack many deep stares into the bottom of a glass where Richards and Waits draw upon all their vast expertise.

In broad terms, Bad As Me is a very approachable and accessible album and certainly those whose ‘boats are floated’ by the experimentation of Swordfishtrombones with its mix of German cabaret and free jazz leanings may find it too straightforward. Thus, for example, ‘Satisfied’ is a great rock stomp and will delight live audiences but were it done by anyone other than Waits it could be seen as derivative.

Yet, as always with the great man, appearances deceive. The pounding, almost industrial drums on ‘Hell Broke Luce’ reveal a blues sensibility that modern music has lacked since Captain Beefheart popped his clogs, and the weird imagery of the swirling title track shows his continued ability to challenge.

It is great to see strong song structures back at the heart of his work and when they come in the form of the brilliant ‘Face The Highway’ or the gorgeous ‘Put Me Back In The Crowd’, which has been described by Waits as “Elvis meets Jim Reeves”, this should be cause for unbounded celebration.

This feeling will be further confirmed after listening to the irrepressible rockabilly of ‘Get Lost’, which is almost pure New Orleans funk and guaranteed to storm any party. Waits, as ever, obliges by giving you an equally exquisite comedown in the form of the classic heartbreak ballad ‘Pay Me’, which stands in a fine tradition of lonely laments such as ‘Nobody Knows When I’m Gone’

Ultimately, Bad as me is a fiercely intelligent and savvy album which profitably raids the junkyard of American music. Tom Waits is certainly a magpie but he takes this old base metal and forges something that is indefinably his own. This rare ability is fully recognised by his contemporaries, where Elton John has recently hailed Waits as “the Jackson Pollock of song” and Neil Young said of him at Waits’s induction to the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame that “I will say that this next man is indescribable and I’m here to describe him… this man is a great singer, actor, magician, spirit guide, changeling and performer for you.”

After a seven-year silence the return of Tom Waits with the truly excellent Bad As Me brings a warm feeling and the knowledge that the world has just become a significantly better place.