Tom Waits' "Bad As Me" (Part Three)
At this point, Tom Waits is a genre all to himself. Orphans proved that he's mastered 100 years of American songcraft, from Stephen Foster through Tin Pan Alley to blues, gospel, and jazz. (As I mentioned in the last installment, he seems to have let go of the overt Kurt Weill influence that permeated Rain Dogs, Swordfishtrombones, and theater pieces like The Black Rider.)
But on Bad As Me, he's much more than just a genre chameleon; he's using his varied palette of musical effects in service of a vision of a new weird America that extends far beyond mere topicality. His freak vocal range -- more off the wall than Charlie Patton, Howlin' Wolf, Clarence "Frogman" Henry, Don Van Vliet, Mack Rebbenack, Jim "Dandy" Mangrum, or Japanese folksinger Kan Mikami -- is more than a vehicle for acrobatic sangin'; rather, it serves to make you feel the plight of his broken down, beaten-by-life characters in your bones and viscera.
The jumpy, nervous cacophony of horns on "Chicago" opens the album on a note of discombobulation and anomie, with a narrative could be from 70 years ago, or last week. "Raised Right Men" explores the same theme as Captain Beefheart's "Nowadays A Woman's Got To Hit A Man," and reinforces some suspicions I've recently held of my gender.
"Talking At the Same Time" is a mise en scene for the troubled economic times we live in, sung in a crying falsetto, as if the shade of Skip James was haunting your copy of Bobby Bland's Two Steps From the Blues. "Get Lost" transmogrifies a horn-dog's lust into spiritual desperation, backed by the band from a Holy Roller church. "Face To the Highway" tells the eternal tale of separation and loss -- which can be painful even if it's volitional. "Pay Me" is a melancholy, accordion-driven waltz, the sole vestige here of Waits' end-of-the-world cabaret.
The echo of what I thought was Chicano rock the first couple times I heard "Back In the Crowd" proved on subsequent spins to be the Drifters -- although Lieber and Stoller never penned a lyric as heartbroken as "Take back your name / Take back these wings / Take my picture from the frame / And put me back in the crowd." (Even "Save the Last Dance for Me" was infused with hope.)
The title track is an archetypal latter-day Waits song, a minor key blues with histrionic voxxx, driven by Casey Waits' massive crash 'n' thump -- like a boho John Bonham. "Kiss Me" is a blowzy bar-room blooze, with Waits importuning his inamorata to "Kiss me like a stranger once again."
"Satisfied" is, of all things, a tribute to the Rolling Stones' "Satisfaction" lyrically (replete with allusions to "Mr. Jagger and Mr. Richards," the latter of whose guitar is all over this album) and the everlasting glory of Nawlins R&B musically.
"Last Leaf" ("...on the tree") is the most sympathetic song about the loneliness of the elderly since Paul Simon's "Old Friends," only Waits even denies his protagonist the buddy that the younger Simon imagined for himself at the age he turned this year. "I'll be here through eternity," Waits sings. "If you want to know how long / If they cut down this tree / I'll show up in a song."
"Hell Broke Loose" puts the sound experiment of Real Gone to work depicting the inner world of a PTSA-suffering combat vet and wins points for writing a song from a soldier's viewpoint that's clear-eyed but compassionate, in a voice that echoes the poet Vachel Lindsay. "New Year's Eve" finds Waits back where he started, propping up the bar observing the passing scene, singing lines that can move you to tears even if you haven't lived 'em, but especially if you have.
Of the albums released since I picked up the Waits thread, Real Gone was an experiment, Orphans a summation, and Glitter and Doom either a tour souvenir or mere product. Bad As Me is the goods -- a piece of work that's of its time and out of time. It's enough to make me want to go back and give Alice and Blood Money another chance.
(Read Part Two here. Read Part One here.)