From a dust-up of urgent, steaming horns emerges a grizzled voice that could only belong to one man. Tom Waits, now 61-years-old, begins his seventeenth album as the conductor of a steam engine barreling toward Chicago still in search of a place to rest his hat. With a lifetime of legendary releases packed with similar sentiments in his rear view, Waits sounds every bit as agile on “Chicago” as he ever has, confirming what we could have more or less agreed upon based solely on the name on the album’s cover: Bad As Me is yet another sensational landmark on the long, well-traveled path of a man who simply refuses to age.
Waits spends the thirteen tracks that comprise this album sublimating all the sounds he’s been mastering since day one: “Talking At the Same Time” replicates many of his greatest piano-driven, 3:00 AM pub romps, “Get Lost” has him channeling his inner Elvis Presley in what amounts to one of the year’s great individual tracks, and his balladry on “Back In the Crowd” is as powerful and genuine as ever before. In a sense, Bad As Me is an all-access sampler perfect for someone who hasn’t yet discovered the man’s genius. “New Year’s Eve,” the fluttering closing track, is the album’s longest and still clocks in at less than four-and-a-half minutes.
Though Waits has spent countless songs lamenting his ills and longing for something that’s alluded him, he’s always been self-assured. His circumstances are his and his alone; he owns them. On the most rollicking moments here, Waits sounds not just self-assured, but downright confident. “Talking At the Same Time” may have fragile, back alley textures, but the political lyrics are sharp and well-defined. As seemingly the entire world unites to confront our mounting economic woes, Waits maintains a realist’s perspective – “well it’s hard times for some / for others it’s sweet / someone makes money when there’s blood in the street” – and offers the sentiment as wryly and defiantly as ever.
But if confidence in what he’s doing is one of the guiding lights of Bad As Me, there is no greater emblem than “Hell Broke Luce”; a war anthem that has the 61-year-old flexing his muscles and slaughtering everyone and everything that crosses his path. He scowls at the thought of deafening bombs and suicide bombers taking down tanks, then drops the biggest firestorm of the whole album: “how is it that the only ones responsible for making this mess got their sorry asses stapled to a goddamn desk?” he asks – nay, demands – confidently, as if literally standing at the foot of congress with a cigarette and a snarl just waiting for someone to tell him to leave. He’s known for distilling harsh honesty into dark humor, but this track cuts right through the bullshit. Better still, it sounds absolutely incredible. Distorted horns, marching percussion, and the occasion spurt of machine gun sound effects off in the distance make it sound like he’s standing tall with his message surrounded by brimstone and horror.
“Last Leaf,” in another unforgettable instance, brings Waits and Keith Richards together on a duet, appropriate since Richards donated guitar riffs on preceding track “Satisfied,” a semi-sarcastic response to The Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction.” Here, Waits and Richards sing as the last of a dying breed – or thriving breed, as it were. “I’m the last leaf on the tree,” they offer in unison, “the autumn took the rest but they won’t take me.” Waits is a master when it comes to ballads and this track is one of his finest. But as well as it holds up individually, its message is one that couldn’t define Bad As Me any better.
Tom Waits has reached the stage of his career where, as an icon, anything he does will be greeted with some level of acclaim. But unlike so many elder statesmen who reach a point of clear decline, Waits has seemingly yet to come anywhere near that point. His last full collection of all-new material came seven years ago on Real Gone, and with Bad As Me he has only become stronger. From all indicators, he realizes that power and is hell bent on retaining it until the very end. We can only hope wherever he goes from here is as remarkable.