Peter Szuban, Contributor
This album cover, with Tom Waits’ lurid look and motion blurring, accurately depicted the sheer vigor of the album. Unlike Waits’ previous most recent studio release, Orphans: Brawlers, Bawlers, & Bastards (which was admittedly a rarities collection rather than a release proper), Bad As Me does not suffer the same sort of pacing issues as its immediate predecessor. Its mix of modern studio techniques with older musical forms, such as slow waltzes and jazz balladry, excellent sequencing with well-paced songs, and Waits’ signature eclectic charm make for an enjoyable listening experience.
It all starts frantically, the track “Chicago” opening the album with a nervous and twitching sax, piano, and banjo intro. The sax is dirty, sensuous, and prolonged. The gasp of a departing train is a recurring motif throughout the song and at end Waits roars: “All aboooaaaard!/ All aboooaaaard!” It’s exciting stuff, as the song just builds and builds throughout, throwing in more and more sounds as it barrels past. It’s a brief intro at 2:15, but the perfect opener. The whirlwind of sound resembles the whirlwind of wheels and spokes as a train chugs along.
The pace slows down with the next two songs, “Raised Right Man” and “Talking at the Same Time”, then picks up again with the bouncy and rocking “Get Lost”. It’s light but fun, and a superb example of the album’s excellent sequencing.
But rest assured that regardless of significance, its effect is a curious, eerie auditory experience.
Songs like “Pay Me” and “Back in the Crowd”, ragged romantic ballads, are the sort of thing Waits has been doing since Closing Time, albeit in a more interesting. That is to say, he goes beyond the piano and lounge-like jazz by including some gorgeous violin, guitar, and accordion in “Pay Me” and equally gorgeous guitar accompaniment in “Back in the Crowd”. Waits sings so effectively in so many different styles, with his growling voice that somehow just works. It’s the sort of voice your health teacher in grade school warned you about.
Elsewhere on the album, the mix of old and new works to keep things fresh despite said oldness. It feels just different enough, albeit at the same time nostalgic. The album’s main draw and defect is this mix of new and old. It’s a mixture that, paired with Waits’ own eclecticism, imbues the songs with a foreignness difficult to engage with on an emotional level. The result is that none of the songs – even the ballads – stick with you after you’re done listening. That is not to say the album isn’t memorable (the songs are interesting enough), but it’s not the sort of thing that lingers in your heart as many a Beatle song tends to do. There’s always a sense of distance, a sensation that the songs are constructed purely for auditory enjoyment and nothing more. This might be asking for too much in the age of Ke$ha and Bieber, but I need something more from my music for it to be something special. I want something that will stay with me long after the music is over. Bad As Me doesn’t do that. It’s a pleasant enough ride while it lasts, but that’s it.