24 October 2011

Lateralist Review - Tom Waits' "Bad As Me"

Rather than break yet another extended blogging silence with a political rant, I thought I'd offer a review of the new Tom Waits album, the cheerfully titled, Bad As Me. (The rant will follow soon enough, I expect.)

It's probably fair to say that Tom Waits' voice is an acquired taste. There are people who find Bruce Springsteen's voice a little too throaty and raspy for their tastes. Those same folks are likely to find Waits' remarkable instrument pitched somewhere between baffling and horrifying. I'm happy to say that I'm not one of those people. To these ears, Waits is blessed with one of the most incredible voices in music, and on this album, he mines its richness for all it is worth.

In fact, Bad As Me confirms something I've long suspected; namely, that Tom Waits' voice is actually many different voices - which are essentially personas - all conveyed via the same inimitable larynx. Crooner, shouter, bellower, whisper, seducer, protester; for each guise, there is a voice. But what makes this album extra special is that for each voice, there is a song worthy of it.

Bad As Me blasts its way out of the gates with the stomp-honk that is "Chicago", and whilst it keeps changing colours and styles, it never wavers in quality. For me, it couldn't help but call to mind Bob Dylan's late career masterpieces, Time Out Of Mind and "Love and Theft", as this an album where the balance between musical daring and lyrical precision is pitch perfect.

There are a lot of songs (fourteen in total) on this album, but each feels carefully honed and shaped. Throughout, the instrumentation is particularly rich; stabs of guitars, horns, swirling organ, plucked double-basss, tinkling jazz piano, and on its goes. This album richly rewards repeated listening. Each song seems to nod towards a particular style or genre, but the calibre of craft involved lifts each and everyone to something far more satisfying than mere pastiche. Waits is a real story-teller, and he (and his wife and song-writing partner, Kathleen Brennan) has used his every ounce of his skills as an artist to fashion each tale into something very satisfying indeed.

Keith Richards features on several tracks, and one song, "Satisfied" is a direct shout-out to the Stones. (Can you guess which song?) Waits himself described the track as "refuckulous", which is surely the greatest word invented by anyone so far this century. And whilst the song "New Years Eve" is garnering the most critical plaudits, for me, the standout song is "Hell Broke Luce". A bone-shakingly visceral anti-war character piece, it is an absolute sonic blast of rage and indignation. In fact for one fleeting moment, when a thundering guitar riff threatens to lift the song into the stratosphere (or possibly drag it into the earth's core), listeners get a sense of what it might sound like if Waits ever chooses to cover The Beastie Boys' "Sabotage". Which, let's face it, would be fucking epic.

Tom Waits doesn't do mediocre. His lesser efforts are at the very least, interesting. But on this album, at at age 61, he's excelled himself. It feels like the culmination of Waits' own particular vision. Lord knows where he'll head next, but I can promise you, I'll be along for the ride.

No comments:

Post a Comment