Tom Waits Shows His ‘Bad’ Side

For anyone who may not know of Tom Waits, here’s a brief introduction: Remember the last movie Heath Ledger was ever in? It was called “The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus,” and it featured a character named Mr. Nick, a personification of the Devil with a croak of a voice and a perpetually lit cigarette.

If you’ve seen that movie, try to imagine what kind of music Mr. Nick would listen to. Try, if you will, to imagine that character personified in music. Here’s something to aid your imagination: The actor who played Mr. Nick is Tom Waits. He is the musician who wrote this album.

Throughout his long career as a musician, Waits has gained a large cult following. The man’s old, gritty blues drawl is one that spans generations and remains timeless despite how Waits has aged (though to be frank, I’m pretty sure the Devil is immortal). At 61, he’s released over 20 albums over 38 years. Without Tom Waits, such delightful romps through Dionysian depravity as Man Man and (to a much lesser extent) Gogol Bordello would not exist today.

With “Bad as Me,” Waits sets himself apart from those other bands, perhaps lacking in youthful energy but never slowing down or showing signs of weakness. Instead, Waits shows signs of powerful patriarchy, a seniority that simultaneously keeps up speed and owns all of the music that has branched off of him throughout the years.

“Bad as Me” starts off in a jangling, fast-paced cavort, a speeding train taken over by Waits’ unpredictable style titled “Chicago.” As Waits croaks out the refrain, “Maybe things will be better in Chicago,” it isn’t difficult to see Waits’ personality captured in that first word. The mere fact that he isn’t even sure if this runaway train is going somewhere prosperous is entirely indicative of his haphazard musical scattershot.

Tunes like “Back in the Crowd” and “Pay Me” slow down into mournful ballads, but this tough sentimental attitude is lost on “Last Leaf.” Here, Waits seems just a little bit too vulnerable, too open. The main metaphorical premise of the song, captured in the lyrics “I’m the last leaf on the tree / the autumn took the rest / but they won’t take me,” forgets the bombast for which Waits is usually known.

On the other side of the coin, though, “Hell Broke Luce” barely keeps from becoming an atonal mess of stomps, clapping and Waits’ groaned out semi-rap complaints about war, violence, drugs and disease. Historically, songs as dissonant as “Hell Broke Luce” are to be expected, but it’s never been personally enjoyable to see Waits completely loses his cool like this.

Whatever “Hell Broke Luce” lost is more than made up for with the real slow-down gem of this album, “Kiss Me.” A lo-fi buzzing recording and weeping jazz piano along with an upright bass accentuate the sparing strums of a guitar and Waits’ gentle crooning out for a love lost to the complacency of time.

After 38 years, it’s unlikely that anybody unaccustomed to the type of music Waits puts out will likely not be swayed by this album. For fans of his music, though, the album is a solid step in the same direction. Waits isn’t pretty, and he isn’t young anymore, but “Bad as Me” can be enjoyed like a cheap drink in a dive bar on a weekday night.

Rating: 3 out of 5