It’s reasonable to expect that as our favorite music heroes start descending into old age, their new releases will merely coast off their cherished legacies. Tom Waits, however, has been coasting in rather unusual way. At 61, he retains a near-mythical status as a true American original, obsessively exploring his own style against all other trends. His voice — a one-of-a-kind howl that has evoked every rough-and-tough simile possible in the English language — has actually become harsher and more forceful in recent years. He continues to play around with his singular combination of old-fashioned, vaudeville and experimental styles, rather than settling for anything less audacious.
However, there can be downsides to that. As distinct as Waits’ musical palette certainly is, it’s been a long time since he’s done anything to really shake it up. Ever since 1992’s “Bone Machine,” in which Waits clouded his repertoire with a gothic, murderous aesthetic, each of his albums has picked from the same bag of tricks: some heavy rockers, some bizarre takes on folk and the blues, some nostalgic ballads and a handful of nutso novelty experiments. Compared to anything else around, each Waits album is wholly unique. Within his own body of work, they’re often variations on the usual unusual.
That’s once again true for his new album, “Bad As Me,” which isn’t to say it’s a weak release. Seeing how Waits’ last proper album was 2004’s laboriously grungy “Real Gone,” “Bad As Me” is exhilarating simply in that it presents a fully revitalized Waits, ready to do his thing. The bustling opener “Chicago” reintroduces him in great fashion with a horn section (and banjo) setting the stage before Waits begins a rally cry for progress. “There’s so much magic we have known/On this sapphire we call home/With my coat and my hat, I say goodbye to all that/Maybe things will be better in Chicago,” he screams over the commotion. The locale is beside the point — what’s important is that, right off the bat, Waits sounds fired up to embark into the unknown.
It’s surprising, then, that the album so quickly begins to feel so familiar. The second track is “Raised Right Men,” a rambunctious denouncement of bad husbands, with a high-pitched organ that gives it a freakshow vibe. Up next is “Talking at the Same Time,” a slower, jazzier tune that mellows everything out.
And then comes — well, a continuation of this same pattern. Waits’ albums often strongly rely on his alternating excellence at rock and balladry. On “Bad as Me,” that dichotomy becomes a back-to-back routine.
For every high energy number like the jukebox jump “Get Lost” or the devilish title track, there’s a 180-degree reply like the slow-burning “Face to the Highway” or the noirish piano ballad “Kiss Me.” This is common for Waits, sure, but in this instance it also gives the album an awkward and surprise-free pacing.
This would be more problematic if the songs on “Bad As Me” weren’t so sharp. At 45 minutes, this is the shortest album Waits has released since the vinyl age. He’s never been one for self-editing — his greatest album, 1985’s “Rain Dogs,” featured 19 songs and nearly as many musical styles, and his more recent albums have pushed over 70 minutes long, often unnecessarily.
Here, he finally cuts the fat, leaving no room for stylistic whims or weak spots. While “Bad As Me” as a whole suffers from an-all-too-familiar flow, there’s not one bad song in the bunch. In fact, there’s quite a few that might instantly rank among his finest: “Last Leaf” is one of his saddest songs, a weeper that makes resilience in old age sound like a curse (“I’m the last leaf on the tree/the autumn took the rest but they won’t take me”). “Raised Right Men” and “Get Lost” are some of his most bizarre homages to vintage sounds.
Best of all, for sure, is “Hell Broke Luce,” one of the most intense songs he’s ever recorded. Waits rails against war, corporate greed and the economy, and barks marching orders over a hard rock backdrop that, indeed, sounds like the world going to hell.
That song, actually, encapsulates the true spirit of “Bad as Me.” At this point, Waits will no longer deliver masterpieces in the form of “Rain Dogs” and “Bone Machine” — instead, he’ll deliver them in small, spotty moments that define everything that’s great about the man and his work.
“Bad as Me,” despite its shortcomings, has plenty of such moments. And so the Waits legend has been sustained — predictably, but masterfully.
Silverstein is a member of the class of 2013.