Official music page and soapbox of Matt Snell

Wednesday 19 October 2011

Bad as Me: Seventeen Albums and Still a Mad Genius

I listened to Tom Waits' new album Bas as Me last night, and now all I want to do is do it again. I mentioned here that it was coming a few weeks ago, and I'd been on tenterhooks since. Now I can relax and let it blow my mind over and over again.

It seems unfair to Waits to continually mention his age when he sounds fresher at sixty-one than most musicians in their twenties. However, when so many of his contemporaries have their best albums behind them, Tom Waits has become especially important to me for proving that artistic growth can continue indefinitely. In fact, on tracks like "Kiss Me," "Last Leaf," and "New Year's Eve," Waits' approach as an older man is what makes the album relevant alongside earlier ones. The lyric "Kiss me like a stranger once again" makes you wonder what his wife thinks when she hears it (although I'm sure she's fine with it, Kathleen Brennan has co-author credit), and revisits the jazzy material from the first part of his career, which I'm usually less partial to, from a new perspective. "Last Leaf" is a duet with Keith Richards that seems to speak directly about the same effect I'm talking about: “The autumn took the rest, but they won’t take me.”

 The thing that makes Tom Waits albums so exciting is that they are all sonically and thematically well-differentiated from each other - you won't mistake Rain Dogs for Frank's Wild Years or Alice for Real Gone. Bad as Me continues the tradition, with the most striking new element of this new album being a more personal feel. Although I don't know the man, several tracks seem more directly informed by personal experiences and feelings. I don't insist on confessional material - I'd much rather hear a piece of well-tuned theatre than a sloppy diary reading - but several of the new tunes do cut to the quick and show that Waits is still pushing his songwriting.

Musically speaking, Tom Waits albums are the gold standard for production values as far as I'm concerned. They sound to me like a bricolage of grungy low-fi sounds used for texture, alongside meticulously recorded rich sounds to round out the space. The rhythms are repetitive and insistent, but skewed in such a way to create unusual juxtapositions. Brokedown performances seem brilliantly conceived and intentional, as if the players are telepathically linked. The style is highly evolved but doesn't seem like an exercise in technique. The song "Get Lost" impressed me by suggesting fifties rock while sounding more primitive, raw, and weird than any such music that ever actually existed. The most potent new sounds are on the track "Hell Broke Luce," imbued as they are with intense rage. It's the only Waits song I can name that uses profanity, which may seem minor except that it breaks a certain genre standard set in so many other songs and impresses the listener with its immediacy. The song also contains gritty, realistic references to meth, and forgoes stylized criminal names like Dudlow Joe in favour of simple ones like Jeff for the same effect. It's scary, you'll be impressed.

The album is officially released on October 25, but you can preview it on until Friday. By all means drop what you're doing and preview it, but if just can't find the time, schedule it in next week. If you need more Waits, check out this interview with Jian Ghomeshi on Q, posted below. I've already revealed too much, so I'm going to quit and go hear Bad as Me again...


  1. "We sat by the fire and ate a goat."

    I can't stop singing that to my wife. She doesn't like it much.

    I've not heard the new album enough to have strong feelings about it either way, but my initial reaction fits right in with everything you said. I liked its sound. There's some polyrhythmic Beefheartian echos, and I think the voice is strong. Also dig all the horns although I still miss the great Ralph Carney. It doesn't really grab me right away lyrically. "Hell Broke Luce" sounds awesome, but I thought the lyrics were pretty goofy...that's the song I skipped to in the car the other day when I had time for only one though. I was thinking "anti-war" song all the way; meth never crossed my mind.

    You're so right about Waits' freshness which is exactly what makes him my favorite musical presence. Here's a guy beloved by most music people (maybe not so much regular people) who could get by doing the same thing over and over again. He could make 'Mule Variations' from now until the day he decides to retire and people would be fine with it, but he doesn't. He reinvents himself. And I'm glad that as much as I like the challenge of 'Real Gone,' he didn't decide to make a second beat-boxing album.

    I think I'll really enjoy this one for seven or so years before he decides to give us another one...

  2. I HATE "The Road to Peace"...always skip over that one. It's one of the few Waits' tracks I'll reach for the button on. I don't even know if I can explain why. I do prefer "The Day After Tomorrow" even though I don't think he has to try all that hard to write a song like that. And you're right--it doesn't fit in with all the beat-boxing. But yeah, "Hell Breaks Luce" tops 'em both, easily. I liked the album even more the last time I listened to it. It's been in the car I don't usually drive, so I haven't heard it as many times as I would usually listen to a new Waits' album. Like to blast the mo-fo LOUD though!

    I was really looking forward to your thoughts on 'Kindergarten Cop'...oh well.

    Damn hobos...