Every Tom Waits record deserves attention, for the respect of a musical nebulous has been earned some times over, and while Bad As Me may not reach the usual standards of his multifaceted career, it still has a certain charm even if it seems directionless. The first two songs give away a more upbeat and super old-school pizzazz with some groove and brass and a very clear idea established in his interviews. He has said that his wife, also his producer, wanted him to cut his songs down to bare bones, or in her own words “get in and get the *** out”, and because of that none of the songs really drag at all and produced some interesting 21st century R&B/rockabilly. But at the same time, a lot of them have small lungs and breathe in too hard.
There’s a wonderful atmosphere created throughout the first half of the album where, without even trying, Waits creates a sort of vintage dance churning, and a lot of it is due to his vocal delivery, which thankfully doesn’t overshadow the tiny nuances of trombone slides, seaside acoustic fiddling, or extra percussion. In turn, for the more dawdling tracks, there’s still a sway-like allure, like on “Face to the Highway” especially featuring a western-tinged mix of lo-fi guitar swells and a steady triplet-feel with what sounds like woodblocks and twangy strings, sometimes with a fragile violin. This is only unfortunate for with “Pay Me,” “Back in the Crowd,” and more or less a lot of the latter half of the album, these other tracks are severely lacking in enthusiasm and enticement. Even “Hell Broke Luce” kinda runs through itself by being that token song on the album that sounds like Bone Machine.
So what do we have here in the end? Carnival and dirge delivery, frenzied lyrics paralleling the fraught guitar attacks, plethoras of sax (and sex perhaps) with other brass, banging of pianos and percussives, which is basically the Tom Waits formula, and so it works here and there on this album, but probably not for much long after. The re-listen value is diminished compared to his past, so maybe he should do the opposite of his wife’s opinion for a while. He’s got the energy to experiment more than this, and he has to know that. “I don’t wanna feel all cooped up”, he says. Well, try something else, sir! In the meantime, Bad As Me can serve as an entertaining throwback to his past and music’s past, but not much else.
Side note: something else listeners may have fun looking for are Keith Richard’s guitar parts sporadically splattered throughout the record.