Tom Waits: Bad As Me – First Impressions
As a kid I was never one for decollataging my walls and doors with posters of rock stars, dorm style, but as soon as I was ready and able to start properly decorating the first thing I did was buy a giant, greyscale print poster of Tom Waits and put it in a frame; don’t worry though, i’m yet to lay candles or dolls at it’s base. So I am something of a fan of the man, but i’m not a diehard, I certainly wouldn’t claim to be his biggest fan simply because I have come to him so late. Tom has been spawning releases for nigh on fourty years now and until a few days ago I had never heard one of them ‘live’, so to speak, never been amongst the cresting of the wave as it hit a fresh stretch of sand…or something, but with Bad As Me i’m living out all the muddled metaphors and getting to hear new Tom Waits for the first time, free from all outside information and expectation.
Now that all sounds great in theory, but in reality actually approaching a Waits album without any exterior knowledge is a challenging task, for one you can’t really even know what genre the things going to be in, so varied and obtuse have been his sounds over the years. After spinning through the record a number of times – not as many as I’d like to have, but life and it’s somewhat heavy nature have gotten in the way of the infinite spin-cycle approach my id would have wanted me to take – I’m still not sure where I would classify this if forced to: it lacks the obvious audible through line ties of his recent albums, the industrial shreaks of Bone Machine, the Caligari-esque expessionism of Real Gone and Black Rider or the batshit insanity of ballad driven Alice (an all time favourite record, for the record) because it features all of these and more in turn, depending on the given track. Though despite this the tracks actually all hold together well, there is no doubt that this album is of a piece, but a piece of what is at once a harder and much simpler question, the answer to which seems to me to be ‘It’s Tom Waits, that’s what.’
The difficult part of that question is knowing just what the hell Tom Wait is or stands for; even now I couldn’t really tell you but I do think I know it when I hear it and you will hear it here. Though this is definitely a ‘new’ album Tom doesn’t really try out any ‘new’ sounds; Chicago, the opening track tells us this when it blasts those familiar Down in the Well horns, simply setting them to a new beat. It’s perfectly fine with me if Tom wants to keep making the same style of music, because there really isn’t anyone else out there doing it like him. Although I did wonder for a second when I first heard Talking At The Same Time because at first it sounds like it may be a duet or perhaps a ScaJo cover, but it’s really just Tom disproving the misconception that his voice ain’t pretty with a flawless falsetto delivery.
There are of course some other new beats and techniques but they are mostly just flourishes on top of the familiar. After years of releasing these super experimental records Tom has returned to the roots of music itself, drawing up inspiration from two genres that he’d long since seemed to have left in the ground, Jazz and Folk. Returned but not reverted, writing simple songs is sometimes the more challenging approach because you don’t have the luxury of that facade of gimmickry to hid behind, it’s just your voice singing your words into a microphone. In the Americana-fuelled car trip track Get Lost Tom sings a line of instructions for the road: ‘Turn up Love Me Tender, there ‘aint nothing wrong with that.’ To me this is the attitude he took into writing this album boiled right down; there’s nothing wrong with the old school he seems to say, so why try and fix it with gimmicks and autotune gadgets?
Elvis isn’t the only old rocker to get a shout out either, Rolling Stones and friends of the man Mick Jagger and Keith Richards (Both of whom have performed on Tom’s albums in the past) are directly addressed in the obvious homage to their hit Satisfied. But it’s not all so self-reflexive, in fact these are the two exceptions, because one main trait of that old style of simple songwriting is earnestness. Pay Me is a strong example of this, a sparse piano ballad about a young girl who’s trying to make it in Hollywood, but ends up broke and making something else to get by. It’s a story that’s been told before and again before that, but it still feels special when Tom does it; his approach makes it feel new, no, more than that, he makes it feel timeless.
unfortunately though Tom himself is not timeless, the material may be new but the man is now getting old, and i’m not still talking about the style. The songs on Bad all seem a little more personal than his tracks have in the past; he’s no longer telling us of different characters, but talking through them about himself. That the songs are predominantly written in a specific first person tense only hammers this sense home. This combinations changes the effect of his lyrics, imbuing them with new meanings, one of which is a newfound fascination with mortality. While Waits’ lyrics have always been dark and oftentimes focused in on death and its despairs this time the references feel different, because he’s now singing about his own death and not that of some fictional figment. Most powerfully are the times when the references don’t seem to tonally fit their track, but seem instead to have just been thoughts of Tom’s that seeped through during the process of songwriting. It’s not so morbid as all that though, the man seems to be prepared for it, hell he’s almost inviting it. He want’s to get lost, he just wants us to be prepared for when he goes.
This rather depressing thought threads through the entire album and alongside it runs this idea of ‘The End’, not just Tom’s but everyone’s. He sings of the apocalypse again and again, though the fast beats and smooth brass oft distract you from this fact. I’d hate for this to be the case – especially since it is essentially also my first – but if this is Tom’s last new album it would definitely make a fitting end to his career. There are stylistic call backs to the many different era’s of his career, there are songs that, like Cash’s cover of Hurt, would take on incredible newfound impetus after the fact and most importantly it’s a damn fine album for anyone to be releasing after all these years in the industry. If he were to go, I dare say he’d be satisfied with this as a send-off and after a time we would be too.