It would be unwise to mine the music of Tom Waits for autobiographical content. After all, this is a guy who's basically been feeding the world a tall tale about his past far-fetched enough to make young Bob Dylan's outlandish claims of hard travellin' sound pretty convincing ever since the first press release for his 1973 debut 'Closing Time' was drafted.
Even so, 'Bad As Me' appears to be as close as we're ever likely to get to what Waits fans have been hoping for: to borrow the title of Waits’ lovely 1981 soundtrack, One from the Heart. Which turns out to be a very, very good move. Unlike fellow veterans with a huge back catalogue, the Californian songwriter appears genetically programmed never to make a useless record. But the least compelling parts on his last few releases - 2004's cranky, cranked-up 'Real Gone' and 2006's outtakes mammoth 'Orphans' - sounded worryingly like Waits was running on fumes, his determination not to repeat old tricks gradually leading deeper into a stylistic dead end where the only available option is to add further layers of ugly on what had already mutated into a remarkably grisly sound world.
'Bad As Me' is a very different beast. Firstly, you'll notice the near-total absence of the carnival barkers, circus sideshows, dodgy oddballs and eyeball kids who've been populating Waits' songs ever since he swapped the nicotine-yellowed barroom balladry of his 70's incarnation for a dizzying cavalcade of strangely tender clatter on 1983's classic 'Swordfishtrombones', the fantastical Waitsiana gradually devolving from an imaginative masterstroke to a byword for Waits operating on cruise control. We're still a gazillion miles from the soul-baring confessionals of a standard-issue songwriter, but tunes like 'Let's Get Lost' - a souped-up jalopy polished to perfection careering down a gravel road, speed-guzzling rockabilly screaming on the hi-fi - and the stunning 'Kiss Me', which, startlingly, could fit right in amidst the boozy regret of 1978's seminal 'Blue Valentine', seem to nod toward Waits' long-standing marriage to co-writer Kathleen Brennan. Add to this the political fury that fires up the foggy small hours swing of 'Everybody's Talking' (“we bailed out the millionaires/they’ve got the fruit, we’ve got the rind”) and the righteously berserk anti-war bark 'Hell Broke Luce' (“How is it that the only ones responsible for making this mess /Got their sorry asses stapled to a goddamn desk”), and it's hard not to detect at least a portion of the 'real' Waits in these tracks.
More importantly, there's the music. Listening to the rhythm 'n' blues racket of the title track (despite its brilliance one of the weakest tunes here, which says a lot about the overall quality), it's tempting to imagine that the guy Waits admires for being "the same kind of bad as me" is in fact his jazz-bingeing, string-soaked, perma-smoking former musical persona, dismissively treated for the past 28 years as Waits has headed deeper into the choppy waters of percussive rattle and feather-spitting skronk.
Oftentimes, repeating old tricks is a tell tale sign of exhaustion and routine settling in. In the case of 'Bad As Me', trekking through a wealth of tried and tested templates, coupled with the strongest bunch of tunes on a Waits album for several years, is a creative coup, a long-overdue admittance that pleasing the listener doesn’t automatically translate into blandness. Whereas in the recent past, band members could've expected any non-spiky decorations to hit the editing room floor, 'Bad As Me' revels in milking every drop of expressiveness from the squad of astounding musical talent at Waits' disposal. From the intertwined guitar riffs that whip up hypnotic potency at the roots of the drizzle-splashed 'Face to the Highway' and the almost submerged horns lurking at the bottom of 'Everybody's Talking' to Los Lobos chief David Hidalgo's and long-term Waits collaborator Marc Ribot's guitars going for a relaxed stroll through a Mexican village on the simply wonderful, Roy Orbison-with-a-hangover lilt of 'Back in the Crowd', 'Bad As Me' sparkles with the kind of relaxed musicality that was ejected from Waits' lexicon aeons ago. Even the proudly one-dimensional 'Satisfied' justifies its inclusion for allowing Waits to indulge his Rolling Stones fixation with no less of an authority on riffs than Keith Richards – who also croaks along on the sparse celebration of longevity ‘Last Leaf’ – reporting for duty for the first time since 'Bone Machine' 19 years ago.
The only reasonable criticism you can level at 'Bad As Me' is that the breezily Buddy Holly-esque 'Tell Me' should never have been relegated to the lowly role of a bonus track on the deluxe edition. Bound to make old fans reach for fresh superlatives in awe, 'Bad As Me' is an ideal introduction to the wonderful world of Tom Waits for newcomers. And there's not many 22nd (counting live albums and soundtracks) albums by 60-something musicians you can say that about with a straight face.