On Bad As Me, as ever, Tom Waits’ cover art speaks volumes. Even idle fans will remember Bone Machine’s manic, blue-scaled snapshot of a goggled, gaping Waits in a devil-horned hat. It’s inexplicable – until you hear the music. By the time “Going Out West” arrives on that record, the listener no doubt shares Tom’s crazed, often sinister exuberance. In a similar fashion, the bighearted grin and blurry, early evening carnival tones in the background anticipates the music before the first chord jumps out on Bad As Me.
The dizzying first track, “Chicago,” is marked by a characteristic mélange of instruments: a staggered horn section, piano, a minimalist banjo pluck and percussion that sounds like hands tapping on a desk (or, more likely, a steering wheel). Waits has never been the sort to waste time or mince words idly and here he exemplifies that sense of urgency. It’s a familiar theme – moving on to another city, another life, but this time it’s different, no matter if his voice shakes: “I’m not alone / I’m not afraid.”
Many of the myriad personas adopted by Waits throughout his career are present: we find the lonesome prodigal-son-singer in “Pay Me,” the shaky gospel-steeped blues wailer on “Raised Right Men,” the somber barfly on the noiresque “Talking At the Same Time,” the restless wayfarer on the jerky “Get Lost” and the heartbroken crooner in “Back in the Crowd” and “Kiss Me.” While distinct and outwardly incongruent, each of these figures is familiar. The diversity of his personas neatly manifest the complexity of Waits (the man) and his tremendous career.
While back in 2006 listeners were given a glimpse of Waits’ emergent interest in politics (see “Road to Peace,” etc. from Orphans: Brawlers, Bastards & Bawlers), it is still unusual for him to be explicit about his activist leanings. We meet an angry Iraqi war veteran, back from the madness of the war shouting out his story in a jerky, staggered, halfway rhyming snarl. His song, “Hell Broke Luce,” is among the most striking and by far the most jarring tracks on this album. It may simply be out of place, book ended by the soft, acoustic guitar laced “Last Leaf” and “New Year’s Eve,” but on the whole it sounds too furious to fit.
While the album’s last three tracks derail the general flow, it does not detract from the quality of Waits’ 22nd release.