There’s maybe no other musician that can match Tom Waits’ unparalleled track record. Album by album, and yes, track by track he’s been one of the most consistent artists over the last 30+ years. So, it’s easy to take each new recording for granted – when you first put a new Waits’ album on you just know it’s going to be good. But, damn if his recent records don’t keep getting better and better as he refines his sound and craft.
Strange or maybe not so strange, Tom Waits has seldom had any “hits”. At his induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame this past Spring, he dead-panned, “They say I have no hits and that I’m difficult to work with … like it’s a bad thing.” Records by Waits are best experienced as a whole, where you can be transported to a place out of time, neither really old or very new – a landscape of dreams. Sad dreams, yes and many nightmares, but overall a world completely and uniquely his own.
So how does he keep making such great, timeless records? It helps to surround yourself with incredible musicians. Tom Waits has a knack for putting together stellar bands to play on his albums, and Bad As Me, his first record of new songs in six years is no exception. Keith Richards plays for the first time since 199X’s Bone Machine (Richards also played on Rain Dogs) along with long-time Wait’s collaborator Mark Ribot, Los Lobos’ David Hildago, Flea from the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and Augie Meyers (the organist from the Sir Douglas Quintet!). All of these players have learned how to work with space and casually (seemingly sloppily) play in-and-around each other without knocking anyone else out of the way. Keith Richards even adds ragged backing vocals to Last Leaf on the Tree, a slow and delicate ballad of regret and resiliency.
When you’re creating classic albums, it also helps to have a great songwriter to work with, and Waits has once again written the songs with his long-time foil and partner, Kathleen Brennan. The yin and yang of the two have, I think, elevated Waits’ songs to a higher ground, resulting in more timeless, grounded and artful albums as a whole. Not many people can work this closely with their spouses or partners, but in this case, the results are magical.
Not every song works for me, especially “Hell Broke Luce” which while an interesting song, feels a little gimmicky and breaks the mood of an otherwise stellar album.
Not everyone “gets” Tom Waits, dismissing his music as too noisy and gruff or maybe too traditional sounding. If the naysayer can get past their initial biases, they’ll be rewarded with an almost cinematic album of dense, complex songs and dream-like stories.