Tom Waits
Bad As Me

There is something astonishing about the near unanimity that characterizes Tom Waits’s acceptance as an important artist and admired fixture in American song, one worthy of comparison to everyone from Gershwin to Dylan. Given that Waits’s most famous characteristic is a voice that resembles sandpaper in a blender, it is a mark of his talent that one generation after the next falls into his thrall. Best of all, following a career that stretches nearly four decades, Waits remains an energetic and agitated musical outlier, pushing boundaries and avoiding compromise.

 “Bad as Me” is loaded for bear with a baker’s dozen of terrific compositions. The album’s opener, “Chicago,” is an urgent, aggressive gutbucket blues, and when Waits shouts “All aboard!” the listener has to follow. The ensuing road is rough and ramshackle, but never less than thrilling. On the noir-ish shuffle “Talking at the Same Time,” Waits muses on our current state of war and economic depression, singing in a startling, near-androgynous falsetto. The rough-and-tumble “Get Lost” weds the immediacy of Elvis’s Sun Sessions to brutal garage rock. The titular track echoes Screamin’ Jay Hawkins at his most belligerent and unapologetic.

 The album’s closing ballad, “New Year’s Eve,” is a  Waits classic. On that track, he audaciously pairs the chorus of “Auld Lang Syne” to a winding multicharacter narrative of his invention. The effect is stunning: Over the course of 41 / 2 minutes, Waits somehow alchemizes eight decades of folk culture into something wholly modern and original. It is a towering song sprung from the mind of a great author, one who began as a faithful follower and graduated into a legend of his own.

— Elizabeth Nelson

Recommended Tracks

“Chicago,” “Kiss Me,”
“New Year’s Eve”