Highlights: Pay Me, Bad As Me, Last Leaf, Hell Broke Luce, New Year’s Eve
There’s something both comforting and disconcerting about the fact that there are artists who reach this certain level where it doesn’t really matter anymore what anyone thinks about them or their art. There’s a default understanding that Tom Waits is a national treasure, this idiosyncratic genius, this oddball troubadour – so who fucking cares? 5 out 5 and 10 out of 10, next please. While it is inevitable, and Tom Waits has no doubt deserved all this blind admiration, it has a tendency to have a disruptive influence on one’s art.
Bad As Me is one of Waits’ smoothest, most polished albums ever. It’s still pretty rough, of course, musically, lyrically and vocally, but in terms of adventurousness and nerve the production is at its slickest. With his influences (Captain Beefheart, William Burroughs, Harry Partch) and his unfading charisma, he is of course in no danger of losing his edge any time soon, but there might be some signs of settling down in songs as unexceptionally good as “Chicago” or, say, “Back In The Crowd”. But when Tom Waits hits it, he can still hit it pretty hard: the uproaring, thunderous numbers like “Bad As Me” and especially the evocative anti-war screamer “Hell Broke Luce” are as gutsy and colourful as anything on Real Gone. The diversity of instrumentation is pretty wild, but for me Tom is at his most effective here when backed by guitar and accordion on the chillingly melodic and gloriously sad “Pay Me” that should take its rightful place among such Waits classics as “In The Neighborhood” and “Cold Cold Ground”.
Also, however beautiful “New Year’s Eve” is, “Last Leaf” should have been the last song here. Lyrically, this bare-bones anthemic ballad finds Waits at his most personal and emotional. ‘Last leaf’ he truly is, even though he shouldn’t really think about it too much. He probably won't, and Bad As Me is still a terrific record, one of the year’s most compelling listens – even if there’s a feeling that Tom Waits isn’t quite bad enough here.