Thursday, January 05, 2012

A few words about "Bad As Me", by Tom Waits

The same story can be told in two different ways.


Tom Waits has released what might be the least consequential album of his long, stellar career. There is nothing new here, nothing that Waits hasn't done before, better. Almost all of the songs contain echoes, sometimes more than echoes, of earlier, superior Tom Waits songs: the roll call includes, but is not limited to, "Heartattack And Vine", "Blue Valentine", "Walking Spanish", "Time", "Soldier's Things", "Johnsburg, Illinois", "Big Black Mariah" and "Town With No Cheer". The songs are populated with characters the likes of which we have seen many times. The inevitable promotional interviews contain the same (or analogous) similes and digressions as we are used to, but even these have become tiresome. Heck, he has even done the Keith Richards thing before. Waits, who for so much of his career has positioned himself as one part showman, one part ironist, one part junkyard revivalist, and one part sensitive balladeer, is now also one part self-parody. He may not yet have jumped the shark, but he is in the pool with it, and is strapping on his water skis.


There is something unexpectedly refreshing about the new Tom Waits album, "Bad As Me". It sheds the excess that marred his three proper post-"Rain Dogs" studio albums. [Note: this is my own classification. Excluding compilations, live albums, and records containing songs written for other purposes, e.g. theatre, film.] This is a stripped-down Tom Waits, and the better for it. He has called in the old gang, most particularly Marc Ribot on guitar (I never met an album that wasn't improved by the appearance of Marc Ribot, see also Elvis Costello's "National Ransom"), Larry Taylor on bass, and some bloke called Keith Richards on guitar, while Clint Maedgen is an excellent stand-in for Ralph Carney on sax. Thirteen songs in 44 minutes amounts to a nice, concise statement, possibly even a Tom Waits Master Class. It is as if Waits is saying to The Kids, "This is about as much of me as I can squeeze into something your atrophied attention spans might be able to handle. See what you think." Perhaps the best way for those of us who have a close familiarity with Mr Waits' long and diverse career to view this album is as the third in a trilogy that began twenty-odd years ago with "Swordfishtrombones" and "Rain Dogs". (In fact, it goes one step further than those two classic albums, a step that he couldn't have taken back then, on account of lack of distance: several of the songs hark back to the sounds he was making prior to whatever epiphany or crossroads experience he had between 1980 and 1982 that led to the first of them.) They all sound as though they are having a lot of fun, and Waits has all the energy of a kid (albeit a kid who had been chain smoking since he was in the womb) making his first record, with everything still to play for.

The path you decide to take, in this Tom Waits Choose Your Own Adventure, is entirely up to you. I have, after a slightly hesitant start, opted firmly for the second. But you probably already knew that.