Tom Waits. It’s a name known well by more seasoned individuals, be they weathered by the greater music community or life itself. It’s a name not enough people – especially young people – know and praise. It’s also a name that begins eye-rolling sentences which end with something along the lines of “for his food” or “at the bus stop.”
Moreover, he’s a musician who hasn’t released a new album (of new material) in too damn long. Until now, with the release of Waits’ latest record, Bad As Me.
For all my love and praise of Tom, I have never had the chance to celebrate an album release of his (unless you want to count his 2009 live album, Glitter And Doom). When the news of Bad As Me being imminent, I suddenly had doubts. That in itself is a strange feeling to hold in regards to the Rock’n’Roll Hall of Famer, because if you can’t trust any musician in this world to put out music that speaks (or grumbles) to you one way or another, you can rely on ol’ Tom to churn out something noteworthy. The question was, rather, which Tom Waits are we going to hear (mostly) from? The dark alley skulker who juggles trinkets and tales? The unforgivable, lovelorn wallflower? The train-hopping hobo about town?
As I would imagine Waits himself would say, “Yes.”
No matter which Tom you’re gonna get, Bad As Me is above all another quintessential Tom Waits record. Opener “Chicago” speaks to me on a personal level, slamming down grooves that demand you get your wanderlust on. It’s also proof that Tom still has plenty of matches under his feet, and he’s got plenty of vigor to walk that walk. “Raised Right Men” and “Talking at the Same Time” waltz through waves of Waits’ renowned stupor and swagger that’s as familiar as it is enjoyable. “Get Lost,” however, is where things start getting particularly interesting; in a surprise turn of style and energy, he unleashes an assault of rockabilly and brass in a way that I have yet to hear from the madman. A refreshing spin that reassures the listener that this grizzled old dog still has plenty of tricks.
Appropriately, things start to mellow out after “Get Lost.” The album begins to again set sail into the ebb and flow of the drunken sentimentality fans have come to expect from Mr. Waits. By the time the album’s namesake comes around, however, things begin to start snapping fingers and tapping feet. Things then finally get into the darkest of alleys with the album’s penultimate track, “Hell Broke Luce.” About as literal as “Road to Peace,” almost as critical as “God’s Away On Business,” but with the tempo of “Starving in the Belly of a Whale.”
Closing the curtain on Waits’ latest circus show is pensive “New Year’s Eve,” which may not be as powerful a closer as, say, “Anywhere I Lay My Head,” but it is still plenty powerful and graceful – or at least as graceful as Tom Waits can be. And for a guy who seems to be as ageless as his music is timeless, that’s all we can ask from him. Everyone’s favorite vagabond may have a few more wrinkles on his face, but his mind is just as weird, voice just as gruff, and brilliance just as shining as the first time we discovered him.