On Bad As Me’s clattering, horn-driven opener “Chicago,” Tom Waits careens like a hobo evangelist, making the dangerous proposition to “Leave all we’ve ever known/ For a place we’ve never seen” seem as inviting as a pile of straw in a boxcar. Nearly 20 albums on, the bard of decrepitude has no time for slowing down in his quest for all things off-kilter, American, and worn. But unlike the mechanical raving of Real Gone or the bugged-out balladry of the “Frank’s Wild Years” trilogy, Bad as Me is full of less-aggressive songs that sound like the castoff treasures he’s been after all along.
Indeed, the songs are looser and more lighthearted than those on Real Gone — undoubtedly a result of the “reasonably short” production process — but as anyone who’s ever read an interview with him knows, even an off-the-cuff Tom Waits is a trip. He drops the catchphrase of retro cartoon cat Snagglepuss on “Raised Right Men” (“Heavens to murkatroid!”) and several characters with Damon Runyon-esque names like Gunplay Maxwell, Flat Nose George, and Ice Pick Ed Newcomb.
“Satisfied” is a nod to the rock catechism, complete with messrs, Keith Richards and Les Claypool lending their well-exposed chops. “Mr. Jagger, Mr. Richards/ I will scratch what I’ve been itchin’,” he says, with manic doggedness (“When I’m gone/ Roll my vertebrae out like dice”) — all the Stones did was try and try and try. Throughout his lengthy career, Waits has ducked into the Ivar Theater, the Chitlin’ Circuit, and even CBGB’s for his musical inspiration, but the platonic venue of Bad as Me is an Americana anyplace — as Marc Ribot put it, less “without precedent,” more “let’s rock the house.”
But there are still some unexpected references to obscure periods of American music. “Back in the Crowd” hearkens back to the days when ukuleles were a parlor-music fixture; the cocaine blues “Get Lost” illustrates a drive listening to Wolfman Jack. “Face to the Highway” is a desolate number with radio-drama string fills.
Waits’ presidential references have always stood out to me, and there are more than a few throughout his catalog, like in “Black Market Baby” and “More than Rain.” On Heart Attack and Vine’s “On the Nickel,” a song about skid row, he references Jefferson and Roosevelt. On Bad as Me’s “Last Leaf,” he mentions the last Republican president who could reasonably be called a pacifist: “I’ve been here since Eisenhower/ And I’ve outlived even he.” The song is simple, even fable-like, in its imagery and arboreal metaphor for hardscrabble persistence. “The autumn took the rest/ But it won’t take me.” Richards joins in on the choruses in a boozy moment reminiscent of Nashville Skyline’s “Girl from North Country.”
In fact, Bad as Me may be the most overtly political statement from Waits’ since “The Day After Tomorrow.” “We bailed out all the millionaires,” he sings on “Talking at the Same Time.” “We got the rind/ They got the fruit.” “Hell Broke Luce,” a title reportedly inspired by scribblings on a prison wall, is even more overt. It begins with a foreclosure, then a march, “I had a good home, but I left, right, left.” It’s all nasty machismo, with gunfire cutting through the martial beat and hand-clap rhythms. Thankfully, Waits is more or less incapable of didacticism in his music, and the song mixes vaguely sinister but lighthearted anecdotes about Geoff (a chef “before the war”), Nimrod Bodfish, and a Humvee mechanic “with his Kevlar on wrong,” with serious charges — “How is it that the only ones responsible for making this mess/ Got their sorry asses stapled to a goddamn desk?” At the end of the song, Waits growls, “What is next?” Considering how obscure and self-contained his songs tend to be, the question comes off as strikingly unvarnished.
Album closer “New Year’s Eve” revisits the schmaltz of Waits albums that preceded his early 1980s come-to-Beefheart moment, in particular “Small Change.” It quotes Scots poem “Auld Lang Syne,” but only briefly, as a detail, not at all like the contrarian weirdness of “Waltzing Matilda” inserted into “Tom Traubert’s Blues.” The effect is like a sort of toast at the end of the world, after the chaos and bluster of “Hell Broke Luce.” The pair of songs highlights what makes Bad as Me so effective, bringing together the oddball sideman and the sappy balladeer over a pile of songs that seem so effortless that they couldn’t possibly have come from anyone else. It’s an album from a songwriter at the peak of his powers, having tempered his imaginatively destructive impulses with his affection for all things old, rough, and beautiful. He’s not against love or fun — just look at that grin! — but it’s best served askew. Waits really said it best on “Kiss Me,” the quietest cut from Bad as Me: “I want to believe our love’s a sin.”