Occupy Tom Waits's Brain
By the fall of 2004, it felt like the country had had enough. Despite President Bush’s claim of “Mission Accomplished” in May 2003, our ordeal in Iraq was far from over, and outcry over the war fell on deaf ears. Protests and grassroots efforts blossomed, building to a change. John Kerry, Bush’s opponent in the 2004 election could—in spite of himself—make things better. All the frustration and anger had built to a breaking point.
One month before that election—before the poor voter turnout, Bush’s re-election, the let down (for some), the dubious victory (for an equally small some)—Tom Waits released Real Gone, a sometimes political album that showed us he was also fed up. But really we got an album because, like the world, Waits’s interior life seems to be a constant building to rupture. All the manic sounds and seedy personas growing inside him reach critical mass and must come out. Real Gone was its own revolution, with no piano—not one single note—from the guy you can hardly picture without one, and a truckload of bizarre vocal percussion. Like most of his albums, it sounds as if the music had to get out of Waits before it destroyed him.
Now, in the midst of the Occupy Wall Street movement, Waits returns with the proper follow-up to Real Gone. Bad As Me is an excellent album, one of Waits’s finest, but the way it once again dovetails with a political moment reveals him as some kind of unintentional representative. Because this protest isn’t new. These sentiments about haves and have-nots, anger at corporate greed, even people speaking out—none of it just started happening. People aren’t wailing about new wounds, they’re gritting their teeth against the ache of scar tissue. What’s surprising is how this anger has been (somewhat) organized into something bigger than our everyday frustration. Similarly, the sound of Tom Waits has become so eccentric over the years that there’s little visceral surprise left in hearing it. Yet each album ends up packing its own strange power, something far bigger and fresher than we expect. His sound is oppositional—political in the way it makes us rethink what sounds can be beautiful, what strange even means anymore—and in that way as galvanizing as any march. Bad As Me is a bracing and defiant attack against things as usual. Its clash and clatter are combative, potent and dangerous, but in the end—and here’s what would throw the suits off—utterly beautiful.
To see Waits perform is like watching a cobra lift its head and stretch its hood. It’s a sight both mesmerizing and threatening. Bad As Me is perhaps the best representation of that wild-eyed persona that Waits has recorded yet—or at least since Rain Dogs. The longest song, closer “New Year’s Eve” barely makes it to four and a half minutes, making this record a potent shift away from the brittle space of its predecessor. But rather than stripping his eccentricities down, these shorter songs just close them into a tighter pen, so that they pull and fuss and fit with renewed vigor. “Chicago” opens with rolling, dark horns that imitate some back-alley chase, belying the hope in moving on when Waits growls that “maybe things will be better in Chicago.” It’s a blistering, sweat-soaked start, but then “Raised Right Men” cuts against it with dry-as-bone organs bleating under Waits’s warbling croon.
These sorts of swings come quick and wild on Bad As Me, which we expect from Waits and yet still have to brace for. He and wife Kathleen Brennan—who has worked with him on every album since 1983’s swordfishtrombones—have crafted yet another subtle shift in his music. Its best musical counterpart in Waits discography probably is Rain Dogs—it shifts from quiet hiss to clattering bark in the same way, has the same taut parts, but it also sounds somehow exactly like and nothing like what’s come before it. With help from both Keith Richards on guitar and his own son on drums, the record is part statement of principles from true rock ‘n’ roll wild men and a step into new musical growth.
The more revelatory moments are the quietest ones. The softer tunes don’t revert back to voice and piano the way he has before. “Talking at the Same Time”, a brilliant song and the most overtly political tune here, is all bleary-eyed shuffle. The surf-rock twang, the shuffling percussion, Waits’s own high, keening vocals with their wonderful restraint—it all feels worn down, pressed upon. If it’s a song about economic crisis, it captures the feeling of worry and poverty better than any you’re likely to hear. “Face to the Highway” brings new life to the road song, with a swirl of dreamy keys around Waits’s dusty singing. “Back in the Crowd”, another standout, is a classic Waits love song. Its Spanish Tinge vibe twists the otherwise basic song into something deeper, something just left of center.
In all of these moments, Waits’s singing is the true surprise. His voice is often restrained on Bad As Me and mostly avoids the self-mimicking, high-in-the-mix growl that hurt past albums (see Blood Money). Instead, when he launches that attack now, it feels like a necessary opening of a pressure valve. All the restraint of the other songs builds, so that when he bursts open on “Hell Broke Luce”, it’s a cackling joy that comes across. Sometimes it feels downright spiritual, like when Waits nods to the Stones and Richards on “Satisfaction”. On the title track, as he lists all the things he is, when he comes in and insists, “You’re the same kind of bad as me,” you’ll find yourself only wishing he was right.
The album ends on “New Year’s Eve”, a debauched party tune if ever there was one. Brennan and Waits have crafted another brilliant set of songs here, with perfect details to make his oddball tunes as wise as they are insane, as clever as they are heartfelt, but the final song is his crowning achievement on this album. The bad luck runs deep, the sound of people cursing at the cops and the fireworks everywhere is pure chaos, “like two stations playing at the same time.” It’s a depraved mess, and the music is a loose, boozy sway behind it. Despite the dark scene, all the players come together to sing “Auld Lang Syne”. That hope for a fresh start—despite overwhelming evidence that there’s no recovering from the latest sin—is a brilliant mix of sympathy and delusion.
For years the serpentine Waits has been daring us to bite the apple, goading us to see the chaos that ensues, but also saying why the hell not? What good has holding back done us? What we’re learning as we camp out in city parks and get arrested on the Brooklyn Bridge is that, whether these protests create change or not, there’s freedom in letting go, in embracing those frustrated thoughts in your head and putting them into some action. Waits has given us another brilliant album in Bad as Me, his best in a long while (maybe since 1992’s Bone Machine), but he also lays down a gauntlet. Waits travels his own path, though he dons new shoes here, and flies in the face of how things should be. He invites us to join him—these songs are as accessible as they are difficult—but we know that, no matter how much he insists it, we’re not ready to be as bad as Tom Waits. But hell, it’s something to aspire to, occupiers.
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