It’s nearly 30 years since his album Swordfishtrombones, when Tom Waits took a complete career turn and went from romantic, late-night crooner – admittedly of the unshaven, disheveled, ashtray-haired, sleeping-in-a-car variety – to experimental growler and started sounding as if he regularly gargled bitumen.
Over the years his sound has developed, and he’s found ragged harmony and humour amid barren and sometimes chaotic blues and jazz arrangements. There are Marmite artists that audiences either love or hate, but few major artists can divide opinion as instantly as Waits can. You either get it, or you don’t.
Although Waits is no longer pushing the boundaries, on Bad As Me he has managed to combine the carnival-esque din (Raised Right Men) that has marked much of his 80s and 90s catalogue with the nostalgic, bar-fly waltzes that made his name (Pay Me, Put Me Back In The Crowd) and released one of his most satisfying albums in years.
Lyrically, Waits’s advancing mortality is a prominent feature. He didn’t wait until he was in his 60s to croon about the spectre of death, but here it feels more personal – the restrained and beautiful Last Leaf finds him fighting off the demons, claiming ‘I’m the last leaf on the tree, the autumn took the rest but they won’t take me’.
Not that he’s gone completely soft; the junkyard poet laureate is still coming up with the kind of dark humour only Nick Cave can come close to – ‘When I’m gone,’ he growls on Satisfied, amid the kind of mighty blues riffing the Black Keys would sell their souls for, _‘roll my vertebrae out like dice, let my skull be a home for the mice’. _
Among the musicians, guitarist Marc Ribot and demon keyboard player Augie Meyers are standouts, while Keith Richards adds ragged flair, and also gets name-checked in Satisfied, Waits’s aforementioned answer to the Rolling Stones’ Satisfaction in which our man finds ultimate satisfaction in the grave. The album closes with a rendition of Auld Lang Syne at the end of New Year’s Eve, a song that sounds like an entire lifetime of joy and regret filtered into four-and-half minutes. It is a moment that could destroy everything and paint the whole record as sentimental, but in Waits’s hands it’s poignant and heartfelt and beautiful.
In short, Bad As Me is an album you can’t wait to get drunk to.