I put on ‘Step Right Up’ from ‘Small Change’ and I laugh. To this day, there are lines in that song which prompt real guffaws – partly down to the words, partly the delivery. It’s just magnificent. The fact that it follows the completely different and yet similarly excellent ‘Tom Traubert’s Blues’ only serves to highlight what an embarrassment of riches that and a number of Waits’ album can be. Similarly, ‘Nighthawks At The Diner’ is another of his records which I find greatly entertaining, with bar-stool Tom in full flow. Sure, it’s a slightly well-oiled character, and one which he has made not inconsiderable use of over his career to date, but it’s undeniably delightful.
His entire catalogue resides in this house, so I’m not an Asylum years loyalist or anything like that, and ‘Swordfishtrombones’ followed by ‘Rain Dogs’ is an obscenely creative succession of releases. Indeed, ‘Orphans’ is a glorious, career-crossing roll around in the work of Waits and gives a pretty accurate sense of the different voices of this remarkable artist. But things have been a little tough in the last couple of decades, with the sonic experimentation and barking foregrounded a little, culminating in 2004’s ‘Real Gone’, which confused some fans with its wilfully cold sound. However, with a culmination and the clearing of the decks via the aforementioned ‘Orphans’, we find ourselves on the receiving end of ‘Bad As Me’. And it’s great.
Clocking in just shy of forty-five minutes and featuring Waits in fabulous voice, this is a remarkably strong, straight-forward set of songs (hey, it’s all relative) from one of music’s true pioneers. ‘Raised Right Men’ has a gothic sprawl to it, with him sounding sharp and sprightly, but then ‘Pay Me’ comes on like a gentle, accordian-backed ballad, opening with the line “they pay me not to come home.” He sounds world-weary and exhausted – it’s beautiful, and a good demonstration of how this album curiously evokes a sense of those old Asylum records.
Obviously, the wilful erosion of the sound in his songs is a more recent trait and that’s nowhere more obvious than on the twitching, gnarled title track which sounds squashed, repressed and desperate to get out. As the start to the second half of the album it’s very well placed and it works far better in context than it did as a teaser for an album for which it is very much not representative. It’s followed by another minimalistic ballad, ‘Kiss Me’, which has a warmth that’s not been a regular facet of his work for a little while now.
And so, as if to bring things full circle, just as ‘Tom Traubert’s Blues’ opens ‘Small Change’ with a neat segue into ‘Waltzing Matilda’, ‘New Year’s Eve’ closes ‘Bad As Me’ with an oddly heartening rendering of ‘Auld Lang Syne’. It’s an end I wasn’t expecting to an album I wasn’t expecting from Tom Waits. This isn’t a curio for fans, or ‘another one’ for the pile of Waits albums. This is an incredibly strong set of songs which stands pretty tall amongst a year’s worth of excellent records.