Tuesday, October 25, 2011

The Cynic's Musical Side: Bad As Me

Tom Waits has released a new album, which pretty much means one of two things: you've already bought it (or are buying it soon or borrowing from a freind who just bought it) or you have no idea who the hell I'm talking about. Waits seems to be one of those secrets that isn't really all that secret: he never advertises, he never merchandises, and finding people you know who are familliar with his music is difficult, yet he has amassed a huge and devoted following amongst musicians and harcore music geeks. I've never met a record store owner who wasn't a fan, Rolling Stone positively drools over his work, he was recently inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and the list of musicians who've expressed admiration for his work is about as impressive a list as you'll ever see: Norah Jones, Johnny Cash, Bruce Springsteen, Diana Krall, Solomon Burke, Joan Baez, The Eagles, the list goes on and on. That's not bad for a guy who drank and smoked away his voice in the mid '70s and employs melodic and harmonic ideas that send more casual listeners running for the fences. You see, his work isn't the kind that you don't just hear idly while you screw around with other things; you actually have to sit down and listen. Really listen. Do that, and you'll soon uncover hidden beauty in even his harshest, strangest songs.

As you may have guessed, I absolutely love Tom Waits. I own every single album he's ever released, and I'm not about to let this one slip through my fingers. But after all that, it's an understatement to say that Bad As Me has big shoes to fill. In a career that spans 19 albums and almost 40 years, the singer-songwriter, who turns 62 in November, has never released a single dud. Think about that for a second. There are artists that I like more than Waits who have released some total crap (I'm looking at you, Tower of Power), yet Waits has gone 38 years without writing a bad song- some that take getting used to, certainly, but not an actual, honest-to-god dud. And it's not like he's played it safe, either; Waits is one of the most original artists in the modern music world, crafting sounds that nobody's dared attempt to create, using apochriphal instruments and percussion made from found objects and other junk, and taking his odd voice to strange new places. But what about his new album? Does Bad As Me live up to the hype?

You bet it does.

First of all, it's hard to make a bad album with the lineup of studio musicians Waits has assembled: Les Claypool, Marc Ribot, Charlie Musselwhite, Flea, Keith motherfucking Richards- seriously, how could this not be awesome? Secondly, this couldn't be a better time for a Tom Waits record: times are tougher than they've been in decades, and Waits has been a sort-of musical patron saint of the hard luck case since he was in his early twenties. And for the fist time in a while (maybe ever) Waits has released an album where he gets genuinely, truly angry. Before I even listened to the album, I went through the lyric sheet and read every last stanza, lest we forget amongst the strange noise that Waits is one of the music world's greatest living songwriters, challenged only by the likes of Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen. Inside lie some of the rawest, most powerful stuff he's ever written. The opening track, Chicago, tells the story of a destitute couple moving on in the fading hope of a better life, while not even knowing what lies ahead for them in their destination ("the seeds are planted here/but they won't grow/we won't have to say goodbye/if we all go"). "Talking at the Same Time" and "New Year's Eve" both illustrate the kind of downtrodden lowlifes that he's always hand a knack for writing about, cementing his place as one of modern music's last true storytellers. But the centerpiece here is the brutal, chantlike "Hell Broke Luce", which records a soldier's fiery rage, set to thundering drums and machine gun fire. Wits has written anti-war songs about the war in the middle east before ("Day After Tomorrow" from 2004's Real Gone and "Road to Peace" from 2006's Orphans, respectively), but never like this. It is rawer, darker, and more chilling than anything he's written since "Tom Traubert's Blues" back in 1976. It may just be the angriest song he's ever written, and left me dumbstruck. Musically speaking, it's not the best song on the album, but it's the one that left the biggest impression on me. I feel confident that years from now, it'll be considered with his most revered work such as "Jersey Girl" and "Jockey Full of Bourbon". It just goes to show that, while Waits isn't usually one to make a statement in his work, but when he does, hearing it isn't an experience you'll soon forget.

But it's not all darkness and gloom. As anyone who's seen his gloriously, hilariously batshit interviews and stage banter, Waits has a prominent fun, tongue-in-cheek side. He can't resist fun, and he gives some great jams, such as the soul-blues influenced title track and "Satisfied", a tribute song to the Rolling Stones featuring Keith Richards on guitar. Let me repeat that for you: Tom Waits pays tribute to the Rolling Stones. With Keith Richards. And yes, it is every bit as awesome as it sounds.

This isn't just another solid record from the music industry's greatest living sideshow act, it's his best since 1999's Mule Variations, and deserves to be said in the same breath as classics such as Small Change and the pure genius Heart of Satuday Night (my personal favorite album of all time). If you're a Tom Waits fan, you'll love this album to death. If you're not, who knows. But give it a chance; you might be surprised. Grade: A+

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