“All aboard!” Tom Waits shouts near the start of his first all-new album in seven years. Surely by now, everyone’s either riding the Waits train or running in the opposite direction, so divisive are the singer/songwriter’s abrasive vocals and theatrical compositions. It’s pointless, then, to try convincing anyone who’s not already a fan to begin listening on the strength of Bad as Me, so let’s focus on what matters to the faithful: how the new album stacks up to the rest of Waits’ work. First, the obvious: It’s good. In an anything-Tom-Waits-releases-is-good way. There isn’t a skippable moment throughout the 13-song experience.
- Tom Waits 'Bad as Me'
But if I’m ranking Waits records, Bad as Me fits in somewhere in the middle. That’s a testament to the quality of his catalog, but it also says something about the new disc: It’s not quite a classic. To borrow terms from Waits’ 2006 Orphans collection, Bad has plenty of brawlers (rock songs) and bawlers (ballads), but not nearly enough bastards—the sort of arty experiments that have made his best projects so memorable. And so, the record doesn’t open up with repeat spins the way Waits’ stuff traditionally has. What you hear the first few times is pretty much what you’re gonna get.
Which isn’t to say you’ll be disappointed, even if your expectations are high. Individual highlights abound, from the melancholy, accordion-backed “Pay Me” to the shuffling, bluesy “Satisfied” (which includes a nod to Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, the latter of whom plays on the album along with other notables like David Hidalgo, Les Claypool and Flea). And then there’s closer “New Year’s Eve,” the kind of detailed story-song—a Las Vegas reference, “disturbing” rhymed with “Irving,” a sliver of “Auld Lang Syne”—that reminds those of us who love Tom Waits why we’re on the train.