the many voices of tom waits

25 Oct

Tom Waits: "You're the same kind of bad as me."

Tom Waits is legend, larger than life. Few musicians are as cloaked in mythology. Yet his music has always been what music should be: comforting in places, jarring in others, pushing boundaries while always honoring the legacy of American songwriting. Bad As Me (ANTI-), Waits’s first studio album in seven years, is all of these things, continuing the direction Waits established with Closing Time in 1973 and hammered into the ground with Swordfishtrombones a decade later. 

At the time, Swordfishtrombones signified a new Waits, a man unafraid to be confronted. The confidence came in large part from his marriage to Kathleen Brennan. They’re still married, and Waits credits Brennan as his support, collaborator, and muse. Here, every track was written and produced by Brennan and Waits together. Those tracks oscillate between manic and maudlin, flip-flopping throughout the entire album. Where a Depression-era blues tune ends, a ballad begins. Waits’s voice a freight train and then a frail leaf.

That voice is a wonder of the world. Waits can sound like a woman down on her luck, a Mississippi blues man, a possessed mule, and an army of brokenhearted ogres. Every harsh word has been employed to make sense of the ragged clatter that emerges from Waits’s throat. It’s as if his voice has always been 60 years old and his body only now caught up.

Don't be intimidated: Bad As Me has moments for everyone.

The record begins with the chugging “Chicago,” a runaway tune led by banjo, piano, and saxophone. At the end Waits calls out, “All aboard!” in a nod to Anaïs Mitchell’s folk opera Hadestown, which itself was already one giant nod to Waits and his world of devils and hobos.

That isn’t the only reference. On “Satisfied,” it’s doubtful Waits can sing the word “satisfaction” without knowing he’s treading on Rolling Stones territory, but halfway through it becomes apparent it’s not an evocation—he’s singing at the Stones. “Now Mr. Jagger and Mr. Richards / I will scratch where I been itchin’,” he squawks, adding the chorus, “I will have satisfaction / I will be satisfied.” The punch line of the joke is that Keith Richards is playing guitar on the track.

Richards is elsewhere too, and he’s not the only superstar on the album. Flea plays bass. So does Les Claypool. Marc Ribot, who’s played with Waits since 1985, lends his Latin-infused guitar licks to just about every tune. Waits and Brennan’s son, Casey Waits, plays drums and emerges here as a versatile musician in his own right, switching expertly from a shuffle to a heavy blues riff to his dad’s iconic junkyard percussion.

Despite several blistering tracks, the best song on the album is also its softest. “Pay Me” is a tearjerker. It’s a ballad Waits might’ve played at The Troubadour when he was first starting. Augie Meyers’s accordion and David Hidalgo’s violin wrap themselves around the piano while Waits sings, “I’ve sewn a little luck up in the hem of my gown / The only way down from the gallows is to swing / I’ll wear boots instead of high heels / And the next stage that I am on, it will have wheels.” An instrumental coda is the perfect end to the melancholy reverie, and in that moment, Waits seems like nothing more than an anonymous and soft-spoken piano player.

Of course, it’s only a moment. Three minutes later, he’s back to his droll wordplay and violent howls, talking at us in spoken asides and then cackling in our faces.

A version of this originally appeared at ALARM Press 

One Response to “the many voices of tom waits”

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. bad as tom « Read::Zebra - November 1, 2011

    […] review I wrote of Tom Waits’ Bad As Me is up over at ALARM […]

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