When Tom Waits released Swordfishtrombones in 1983, the album’s clanky, experimental sound seemed like a radical departure from the bluesy saloon ballads Waits had been known for. But over the past three decades, as Waits has ventured further into the avant-garde, getting gruffer and noisier, Swordfishtrombones has sounded more and more like a baseline for “normal.” With his latest album, Bad As Me, Waits retreats a good bit, closer to the ’83 version of himself. Bad As Me largely eschews literary themes and Brechtian distancing effects: It’s just 13 songs, in a variety of styles from roadhouse rockabilly to spooky atmospherics, nearly all sung in a warm growl. As good as Waits’ work was in the ’90s and ’00s, it’s refreshing to hear him mix more entertainment in with the art.
Bad As Me is still a Waits record: The propulsive clatter on the album-opening “Chicago,” the unhinged gospel sound of “Raised Right Men,” and the frenetic military chanting in “Hell Broke Luce” all attest to that. But even when Bad As Me gets rowdy, as on the jumped-up “Get Lost,” it just sounds like especially raw rock, not so much like the guttural howls of a drunken circus clown flailing at ghosts. And when he strips down to piano, reverberating guitar, and stand-up bass on the still-in-love song “Kiss Me,” Waits recalls his pre-Swordfishtrombones self, now older and less glib.
Bad As Me features guest appearances by Keith Richards on the Rolling Stones-quoting rocker “Satisfied” (which features Richards trading guitar licks with Waits and Marc Ribot) and the closing-time ballad “Last Leaf” (on which Richards joins Waits for the chorus), and in a way, the whole album feels like Waits’ embrace of a legacy that now includes enshrinement in the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame alongside the Stones. Bad As Me is entry-level Waits for newcomers, and for longtime fans it’s a fun reminder of Waits’ ability to be a badass when necessary.