Tom Waits has been called a lot of things, but rockabilly cat was probably never among them. That's just one of many guises the veteran eccentric takes on in Bad as Me, his first all-new release in eight years and a leading album-of-the-year contender.
Just when you think you've got Waits half-figured, the king of grizzled-dom -- and musical gristle -- goes all Eddie Cochran on us in Get Lost. Roll down all the windows, turn up Wolfman Jack/Please, please love me tender, ain't nothin' wrong with that, he sings, sounding a little like Love and Theft-era Dylan suddenly overtaken by the booming voice and spirit of the Big Bopper.
Little else on Bad as Me is quite so unexpected, or certainly not so turn-back-the-clock youthful, given the sense of mortality that runs through other songs. But it does point toward just how much of the album actually rocks, with Waits mostly foregoing the chain-gang-style clanging percussion he favored in his experimental middle period for a traditionally bangin' rhythm section, not to mention some very loud blues guitars.
Waits is really what you'd get if you could somehow combine Dylan, Springsteen, Sammy Cahn, Howlin' Wolf, a Waring blender, an out-of-control assembly line, and -- last, but certainly not least -- Screamin' Jay Hawkins, all of whom come to mind at various points in this brilliant but unassuming assemblage of rank Americana.
Since it's almost Halloween, let's start with the Screamin' Jay influence, which comes to the fore on the hilariously sexy/nasty title track. You're the same kind of bad as me, Waits literally screams, letting everything in his dirty soul loose, singing not just from the gut, but the lower intestines.
But Bad as Me also gives you the Waits who can come up with crooner-friendly ballads like Downbound Train.
Any torch singer worth his fire would be a fool not to cover this album's Kiss Me, as good a song as has ever been written about reigniting the flames in a relationship gone passionless. Kiss me like a stranger once again… I want to believe that our love's a sin, he sings in his least tortured voice, over the sound of standup bass, distant piano, and the subliminal sound of crackling vinyl.
The acoustic-guitar-backed Last Leaf, could almost be out of the Great American Songbook -- although, with Keith Richards adding a harmony vocal, no one will mistake it for a Bing-and-Frank duet. It takes September of my years to new levels: I'm the last leaf on the tree/The autumn took the rest/But they won't take me.
Richards also plays a fierce guitar on several tracks, including, amusingly, Satisfied, a blues stomp apparently written as an elderly answer song to the Stones' Satisfaction. In case there's any doubt about that, Waits actually name-checks Mr. Jagger and Mr. Richards in the lyrics, in-between couplets like Roll my vertebrae out like dice/Let my skull be a home for the mice.
This is his most easily accessible album in decades. But for anyone who misses the more avant-garde Waits, there's the penultimate Hell Broke Luce, a stunning four-minute encapsulation of the modern soldier's lot, framed as a stream-of-consciousness marching chant with otherworldly percussion and occasional bursts of Metallica-style guitar. Its abrasiveness doesn't quite fit with the rest of the album, but it's tour de force enough to be worth the price of admission.
Then again, it's hard to say the standout isn't Face to the Highway, a spooky road song Bruce himself will wish he'd written. Ocean wants a sailor, gun wants a hand, money wants a spender, and the road wants a man, he sings, chillingly describing the siren song of itinerancy and personal betrayal. I turned my face to the highway, and I turned my back on you.
That's austere stuff, but it's not long before the nervous laughs resume. With Bad as Me, you get high comedy, high tragedy, and the unlikely conflagration of musicians as great as Richards, the Red Hot Chili Peppers' Flea, Los Lobos' David Hidalgo, Mark Ribot, and Sir Douglas Quintet organist Augie Myers kind of but not quite colliding with one another.
If Dylan ever made an album this good again, it'd be cause for a day of national celebration. But don't let Waits' slightly less celebrated status get in the way of your own Bad bash.