Bums. Drunks. Prostitutes. Travelers. Nighthawks. Hustlers. Throughout the 1970s—under the spell of Jack Kerouac, Edward Hopper, and Charles Bukowski—Tom Waits told sad, comic tales of the down-and-out. He dressed in old, beat-up suits and lived a hard life—drinking and smoking excessively, hanging out with shady characters, and staying at the Tropicana, a seedy Los Angeles hotel he once described as being full of “transvestites, unemployed firemen…hookers, sadists…ex-bebop singers, and one-armed piano players.”
Waits sang in a gruff, unique voice, sounding older than he was, usually accompanied by just his piano and a jazz trio. But then suddenly, starting with the albums Swordfishtrombones (1983) and Rain Dogs (1985), everything changed. His voice and lyrics became deeper and more nuanced. And his new sound—in large part ignited by Kathleen Brennan, who since 1980 has been his wife and co-writer—drew on such disparate influences as the circus, cabaret, Kurt Weill, the field recordings of Alan Lomax, Afro-Cuban rhythms, and the tough blues of Howlin’ Wolf and Captain Beefheart.
On Bad as Me, an album filled with wild blues adventures and beautiful ballads, Waits continues to explore the sounds of this second incarnation. The record kicks off with “Chicago,” a song named after the city where electric blues was born, where men like Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf took tradition by the lapels and shook it all night long; a song full of the dread and optimism of the Great Migration—the movement of millions of African-Americans out of the South. In this muddy blues symphony of banjo, drums, bass, guitar, saxophones, trombone, and harmonica, Waits sings, “Maybe things will be better in Chicago,” and, appropriately, ends the song with a conductor’s yell of “All aboard!”
Bad as Me is indeed a train, 13 coaches long (16 if you pick up the deluxe edition), and one of its greatest achievements is the stunning stylistic shifts from one track to the next. With each song you find yourself at a different party—with its own mix of sounds, drinks, and characters. After “Chicago” we move to “Raised Right Men,” a rowdy gospel-blues with a piercing organ and Waits, in a quaking voice, singing about how “there ain’t enough raised-right men.” In “Talking at the Same Time,” Waits sings in a falsetto as bluesy piano notes gently rain on reverb-soaked guitars and sad Eastern European brass. Things get fun and fast all of a sudden with “Get Lost,” as Waits, channeling Elvis, tells his lover, “Please, please love me tender / Ain’t nothing wrong with that.”
In the sad ballad “Face to the Highway,” it’s easy to believe Waits when he sings, “I’m going away.” Then he brings you even lower with “Pay Me,” a tender number featuring an Irish violin and heart-tugging accordion. The mood stays mellow on “Back in the Crowd,” with its old country-music feel, Spanish guitar, and Waits, his voice full of heartbreak, singing, “If you’ve found someone new / Put me back in the crowd.”
Bad as Me takes yet another turn with its unruly title track, on which Waits, a master of many voices, sounds outright demented. Over metallic drumming and punchy, baritone sax lines, guitarist Marc Ribot—a Waits regular since Rain Dogs and himself a master of many voices—plays a spicy mix of Cuban and blues melodies. Then suddenly, with “Kiss Me,” we’re in another time and place: a hazy, film-noir dream where, over lonely piano notes and the crackle of an old LP, Waits sings, “Kiss me like a stranger once again.”
We then walk into a train car called “Satisfied,” a raucous blues party where Waits, as if singing through a grin, gives a shout-out to “Mr. Jagger and Mr. Richards.” Keith himself makes one of several appearances on guitar here, and on the following track, the lovely “Last Leaf,” he also contributes vocals. Waits and Richards, like old friends drinking in the back of a dusty dive, sing together, “I’m the last leaf on the tree / The autumn took the rest but they won’ take me.”
Everything explodes once again on the nightmarish “Hell Broke Luce,” Waits singing in a deep bark over a pounding, hard-rock military march. We then enter the album’s last track, “New Year’s Eve,” a waltz with quiet punctuations from tuba and accordion, a story in which “The stars looked like diamonds / Then came the sirens / And everyone started to cuss / All the noise was disturbing / And I couldn’t find Irving / It was like two stations on at the same time.”
Waits, like any great artist, transports you to an entirely new world, so when the album comes to an end, the jolt back to reality leaves you disoriented. And at that point there’s nothing left for you to do but pour another drink—and go back to “Chicago.”
Dmitry Kiper is a New York City writer working on short stories, poems, songs, and other curiosities. He is currently a fellow at the Writers' Institute at the City University of New York.