So it’s the great man’s seventeenth studio album, and the curmudgeonly ringmaster of warped urban folklore and lowlife gutter lullabies, now in his sixty-second year, shows no signs of mellowing or staying static. He’s got some old friends in to bring their noise and some new faces too. Keith Richards contributes to several numbers, as do the great Marc Ribot and David Hidalgo, who provides the gorgeous Tex-Mex strumming and picking on traditional instruments as well as violin and accordion. Mavens of bass guitar wildness Flea and Les Claypool bring some angular funk low end to the proceedings, and harmonica legend Charley Musselwhite blows some fine harp too.
Bad as Me harks back to the era of Swordfishtrombones and Rain Dogs, but sounds just as fresh and intriguing as any new Tom Waits record is sure to be. His lyrics are the customary stories of the lost and lonely and rejected, but there seems to be a more pointedly political tendency in these stories. There is anger here as well as sadness, fury and lament, sardonic hymns to the wrongness of the times.
Things start with an edgily plangent Chicago blues groove, all thunderous percussion and Hubert Sumlin (RIP) stinging guitar licks – Howlin’ Wolf backed by the Royal Drummers of Burundi. Then we get a frequently wild, sometimes sweet, sometimes funny but always deep orchestration of sounds and instruments. It’s bluesy, jazzy, folky music typical of Waits’s unique sonic world. There are cheesy Vox and Farfisa organs for that sixties lo-fi vibe, that trademark Wolf/Beefheart growl and other startling vocal personifications, angry atonal stabs of industrial keyboard, wobbly reverb-soaked guitar chords – and is there a woozy Mellotron somewhere in the mix?
The road, the rain, a woman, prison – Face to the Highway is a soundtrack for an as-yet unmade David Lynch movie, the vibraphone redolent of Angelo Badalamenti. Next there’s a sentimental mood: a broken-hearted lament awash with soulful squeezebox and drunken fiddle. We’re into Freddie Cannon territory now, norteña balladeering sliding into Roy Orbison chord changes and melodrama. His voice rides the razor-edge of reason on the title track, then punctuates the angst with louche and chucklesome interjections that swerve the mood suddenly into comic badboy mode. Then it goes a little bit metamusical with the vinyl surface noises underlying the hipster jazz piano tinkling, all echoey like in an empty midnight roadhouse bar, and the buzzing upright bass.
Waits gets joyfully Beefheartian on the Rolling Stones tribute number Satisfied; it’s hard to tell him from the real thing, and that could just about be the Magic Band behind him in raw and rude blues mood. Keef sneaks in a quote of the immortal Satisfaction riff too. Gnarly stuff.
Soon we’re back to grainy-throated lullaby mode – as always he undercuts the sentimental tenor with his gruffly tender singing and creates something peculiarly and ineluctably affecting. Beautiful indeed. Then the mood swings back again with the amusingly weirded-out word-pictures and oil-drum thumpalong of Hell Broke Luce. I’ve no idea what, if anything , this song is about, but I think it may be inspired by the lurid fantasies of Hieronymous Bosch and Milton’s Pandaemonium. It’s a lot of fun, anyway, though dark for all that. Then it wraps up with New Year’s Eve, which is like In the Neighbourhood performed by Ry Cooder, which can only be a good thing. And in the Tom Traubert’s Blues tradition, he slips some singalong folkore into the song – Auld Lang Syne this time.
There are three bonus tracks available on a more expensive edition of the record available for download. I’m puzzled by this packaging decision, since the tracks continue in the same clattering, rattling vein as the rest of the album. And what better way to end than on a note of existential darkness with the eerie After You Die? Whether it was an artistic decision on Waits’s part to put out two versions or some kind of record company marketing ploy, I can’t tell. But I would strongly recommend paying the extra couple of quid for the additional tunes.
So, to sum up: it’s sort of what you’d expect from a Tom Waits album, true; but it’s every bit as great as anything he’s ever done and an essential acquisition whether you’re a fan or not.