Tom Waits: Bad As Me

Tom Waits is getting old. And though he’s always channeled the raspy belt of a world-weary sea captain, the 61-year-old folk legend’s recent hiatus and further descent into obscurity have tested his ability to remain cool.

Luckily for Waits — and fans of his conceptual Vaudevillian freak-blues — he’s never known the meaning of the word.

Bad as Me, Waits’ 17th studio LP, opens with the cacophony of banjo, brass and the ragtime key-pounding of “Chicago” — an instant “Great Train Robbery”-style classic and defiant reminder that Waits is louder and irresistibly weirder than ever. Echoing the port of call sea-chanty of Rain Dogs opener “Singapore,” Waits delivers the same booming vocal energy, this time dropping anchor amid sleeker production and a surprising focus on cohesive songwriting.  

In true “why-the-hell-not” fashion, the aging Waits enlisted a team of A-list rockers for Bad as Me, each sounding less like a collaborator and more like an actor leafing through Waits’ meticulously paced musical: Flea’s crawling bassline faintly pulsates beneath “Raised Right Men”’s sleazy, bayou stomp and gypsy jazz guitar, while Keith Richards’ acoustic noodling creates a pleasant fireside atmosphere for Waits’ tortured poetry on introspective southern ballad “Last Leaf.”

But Bad as Me shines even brighter when Waits strips down the brass stabs and kitchen cabinet percussion, placing his brilliant songwriting and Closing Time-era croon in the smoky barroom spotlight. Showstopper “Back In The Crowd” finds a forlorn Waits, accompanied solely by lazy, luau guitars and brushed drums, delivering a chorus that is both simple and achingly tender.

Album climax “Satisfied” — a tongue-in-cheek Waits-rock response to the Rolling Stones’ “I Can’t Get No” — is simultaneously a tribute to his peers (Richards also appears on the track), and a smiling jab at the ultrastylish generation to which he played mysterious crackpot uncle. “Mr. Jagger and Mr. Richards / I will scratch what I’ve been itchin / Before I’m gone,” Waits growls partway through.

It’s a bold statement at an age where most fading legends are prone to “cute” and “nostalgic” deathbed releases, but Waits has never really been one to embrace subtlety. With an album brimming with as much youthful passion and creativity as Bad as Me, he has no reason to. (9/10)