a concerned and loving review of Waits' Bad As Me

By Nathan Gale

He's listening, are you?
It’s difficult to judge the career of a living artist. Sometimes the career is going up, sometimes down, sometimes it looks like it’s going up when its going down, sometimes what seems a break is actually continuity. You never know until they’re dead. In addition, public praise or criticism are wild cards that makes it difficult to properly assess what an artist is doing, or the difference between what an artist wants to do and what an artist needs to do in order to change and grow. So, careers of the living are difficult to understand.

Tom Waits’ seventeenth studio album, Bad As Me, combines all the barroom sentiment and bruised instrumentation from the last eight albums, but is the first to show his age as an artist. The title track “Bad As Me” is a typical Waits’ song: it uses his down-and-out-man-about-town stage persona to reinforce that very persona, as if “Tom Waits” were a product of merely being “Tom Waits.” For instance, take these lyrics: “You’re the letter from Jesus on the bathroom wall/You’re Mother Superior in only a bra/You’re the same kind of bad as me…I’m the car in the weeds/If you cut me I’ll bleed/You’re the same kind of bad as me.” Of course, Waits has been selling us the “Tom Waits” character for the last twenty years. Similar to the opening track “Big In Japan” from his award-winning album Mule Variations, “Bad as Me,” like all of Waits’ songs, describes not Waits the person, but Waits the persona. Everything about the lyrics moves towards self-definition. We aren’t allowed to judge Waits; instead, Waits judges us and then declares that we are one and the same, that “you’re the same kind of bad as me.” If you’re a Waits fan, it’s a complement, and if you’re not, well, you probably won’t care anyway.

He might be in your cafe
All this makes it hard to know him, or, more importantly, it makes it hard to judge the changes he has gone through to end up where he is now. He has always played the man who is out of step and that makes him hard to pin down. Where did this man come from? At the beginning of his career he was trying to pass himself off as fifty or older in what seemed like a conscious attempt to be born whole and complete. What this has done is warp the usual relationship between career and time. He’s created another universe, albeit extremely original, in which he’s seemingly escaped from the normal paths of development, but in Bad as Me we’re seeing Waits’ image fray, if only by how redundant it is.

Other artist like Prince, Dylan even Lincoln Park all have changed in the same way: they had an initial burst of fame which fused them with a generation and an era. They then had to change to not only represent their generation’s changing concerns and tastes, but also to reanimate the ideals and styles that they initially heralded. Prince and Dylan have now spent years out of time, which is exactly where Waits started. I love this about Waits, his not being part of the world, his timelessness and the control he has shown in being his own creation. And yet something is obviously changing and you can hear it in this album.

Is he changing?
The title track “Bad As Me” is the most original track on the album, using a synth beat that’s played on a loop and it’s something we haven’t heard since Real Gone. This makes for something slightly new on the album, as Waits can be so hesitant to use non-acoustic instruments, and the song itself is very catchy in the way that you hear yourself singing the lyrics out loud in your car. It’s an easy quality to find in any pop tune played on the radio, but something hard to find in Wait’s oeuvre—sometimes you need a fancy French word to just mean “body of work.” Waits’ body of work is familiar only in its use of out-of-tune crooning (beautiful in its own right) and his apparent disdain for average “rock’ n roll” instrumentation (electric guitar, drum kit, electric bass, keyboard, etc.). His usual lineup of instruments is more “found object art” and so “Bad As Me” is both good in a normal way, but strange in a Waits way in that the instruments don’t come from an antique store, junkyard or an Amish barn.

The twelfth track “Hell Broke Luce” seems to be an anti-war march, recalling the same anger and political frustration present in many of the songs from Bone Machine and Real Gone and yet the sentimentality seems forced, with lyrics like “I had a good home but I left/I had a good home but I left, right, left/ That big fucking bomb made me deaf, deaf.” It is as if he is trying to impersonate how Waits has felt or feels when he’s angry and frustrated. You recognize that Waits is angry, but the song’s lack of spark and originality makes it seem less like real anger and more like Waits trying to represent an idea of what it seems like when “Tom Waits” is angry. While his persona may never be stripped down in order to allow change brought about by the times, the persona ages and acquires its own form of whimsy. For the first time his persona seems as burdensome as a normal career, which “Last Leaf” somewhat addresses: “I’m the last leaf on the tree/The autumn took the rest/But they won’t take me/I’m the last leaf on the tree…There’s nothing in the world/That I ain’t seen/I greet all the new ones that are coming green.”

Timeless? Ageless? 
If Waits started out as a twenty year old imitating a fifty-year-old man, he now sounds like a sixty year old trying to sound as if he’s forty. This slipperiness of age is Waits’ gift and curse. The world he has created is so original that it has been hard to find any fault or issue with his work. Will Hermes from The Rolling Stone called Bad As Me his “most sharply focused record since the game-changing tag team Swordfishtrombones and Rain Dogs decades ago.” Dave Simpson of The Guardian called it “as unpredictable and inspired as ever.” But I think that they miss something here and that they’ve been blinded by the originality and past vitality of Waits’ imagination. What they don’t see is the artist who’s finally been caught by his own creation. Time is forcing him to change and he’s not quite comfortable with that and it shows in his music. Like a Samuel Beckett waif, which he has sometimes resembled, he is trapped in his own mind—that must have seemed cool for a while, but it’s starting to have a significant downside. One might argue that Waits has always anticipated this, that he was always gathering a little dust. Still, there’s a big difference between pretending to fray and actually fraying. One’s a pose and a funny and sharp one at that, but the other is the ugly inglorious truth.

Probably the tenderest moment is the closing track, “New Year’s Eve,” a reworking of the classic “Old Lang Syne.” It’s reminiscent us most of his early work, with the line “old lang syne” repeated to a fade-out, making it feel like a New Year’s Eve party of Vietnam vets slowly falling asleep, drinks in hand. Bad As Me is essentially a reanimation of his earlier surrealist bar folk and Waits seems content to just go through the motions of making another bizzaro album. That might seem harsh and I might be wrong. After all, Waits is still alive, kind of, and there’s one thing we can count on from living legends and that is that they will surprise and destroy all our theories about them. I love Waits and can’t wait to be wrong again.

Where are you going timeless one?

©CCA Arts Review and Nathan Gale

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