REVIEW: Tom Waits - "Bad As Me"

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Tom Waits - Bad as Me
Record Label: Anti-
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If you ask me, and you must care something about what I say as you've made it as far as to click on this, there's more need for Tom Waits now more than ever. The obnoxious trend toward digitally enhanced voices (see autotune) belies a simple and difficult fact -- there are no interesting voices in music these days. Cher's use of whatever effect that was on "Do You Believe in Love" a few years ago was in effect a negation of her own power as much as it was a surrender to technology. And there are only a few, Kanye jumps immediately to mind, who manage to use the digital enhancement toward interesting musicality rather than just covering up the truth -- they can't sing. Or they can sing, but the computer can sing better. Could it be that the whole obsession with X-Factor, American Idol, Glee, etc. is us trying to remind ourselves that we can sing only to have those same voices come out on record sounding mildly robotic? It's sad that you can sit down and count on one or two hands the amount of truly original voices in music these days -- Cohen, Waits, Case, Holland, Yim Yames... Shouldn't our ears and by extension our lives be filled with these people?

Certainly in Waits's case we haven't been too long without the growling songster. Live album Glitter and Doom (which reinterpreted many of Waits's songbook) was out 2009. And Orphans, Bastards, & Bawlers, a series of odds and ends which were hit & miss but intriguing if only as a source book for the Waits that Waits lets us see made 2006 more enjoyable. But, the last proper record was Real Gone all the way back in 2004. So if you could say that Waits is capable of returning to form, which is an altogether ridiculous statement but one that gets used all the time in reviews like this (about an artist whose been at it for decades) you could say that Bad as Me is it. Certainly you can hear traces of Waits's previous efforts on this record. "Raised Right Men" with its laments about masculinity under a snarling organ brings to mind "Goin Out West" from Bone Machine. Just as "Kiss Me" where Waits moves to a croon under a tinkling piano disrupted (as he always so brilliantly does) with the hiss and scratch of an old recording evokes the somber lurching of "Black Market Baby," with that song's lyric "there's amnesia in her kiss" seeming to propel its predecessor's title.

But, what seems new with this record is now produced it sounds. Now, don't get me wrong, this is a Tom Waits record so there's still a lot of pulp in with the orange juice, but as opener "Chicago" drives home, this is a record that has been really well thought and well wrought in production as well as song structure. "Talking at the Same Time" has a sort of melodic innocence that harkens back all the way into his career. And while those early albums are personal laments, in this track as well as Bad as Me, Waits takes up the mantle of the contemporary curmudgeon. It's a sort of reprise to his continual role as an outsider in the world. First the short order cook, the Fleurs du Mal of the burlesque show, the primal scream of a forgotten era, the bluesman recreating the blues from trash, now Waits's role is perhaps the most uncomfortable of his career -- the established artist. The old man. It makes "Talking at the Same Time" feel as much like a sad ode to the world of hyper-communication as a push toward the oblivion.

It may seem at first like an awkward persona, but Waits fills it nicely. He's been obsessed with performance since the Big Time Tour and each album seems to be the autobiography for a new Tom (or sometimes Frank) -- digging up and recasting similar themes, he seems to never run out of material, mostly because of how clearly he can look at one thing the same way as the sly Spanish sound of "Back In the Crowd" seems to re-render the romantic ballad of love and loss. A critic once said of Beethoven that he was a renewable resource. In many ways, it seems that Waits sees the world the same -- endlessly able to draw from it. But, more than anything else on this album you begin to see him pull away from this world in ways that we haven't seen before. "Back in the Crowd" is a surrender to oblivion and anonymity. And even the titular track isn't about being cooler than everyone else (see the irony of "Big in Japan") but about living up to expectations rendered in those fantastic Waitsian paradoxes. Who is the Tom Waits on this album? An outsider, unwilling to go down, ready to dose out medicine the world that may kill us or make us well.

It's with the utmost ease that Waits is able to assume this role. He's been a rebel his whole life. And with tunes like "Get Lost" -- which assumes a blissfully retro rock 'n roll bounce -- he makes the case for the old being new again. After all, who else do we have that can live up to Waits? What do we do when all our rebels are old men? Well, if Bad as Me is any example, they see clearer and further than the rest of us do.


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