Everyone’s Favourite Whiskey-Soaked Crooner Is Back With An Album That Finally Sees Him Comfortable In His Own Skin…

Words By Jeremy Allen

Tom Waits may have quit drinking in 1986, though his hobo caricature has been writ large throughout his impressive body of work ever since, a bibulous alter-ego that has become more deranged with each offering, rather like the picture in Dorian Gray’s attic. The only difference is that Waits’s portrait hangs in a gallery for all to see while the man himself remains an enigma – a reclusive and intensely private man who has retained an aura of mystique in a world where every little secret is often laid bare.

If Swordfish Trombones in 1983 was his own personal Year Zero ­– where he sabotaged his sound and came out with something altogether more frenzied and disconcerting  – then that new found freedom of expression reached its illogical conclusion with 2004’s Real Gone, a record so rhythmical and guttural that it was as much a hip hop record as it was blues.

2011 may mark a new phase in his career, though it’s not anything like as seismic or revolutionary as the last one. Bad As Me represents an artist finally becoming comfortable in his own skin and not pushing violently in pursuit of something new. It’s as if he’s decided with this album that maybe there’s no need to reinvent the wheel anymore, because, you know, he already invented the wheel. A songwriter of his stature and legend has more than earned the right to write wonderful songs if he wants to. “Alice” and “Blood Money”, crudely speaking, represented the two sides of Waits when they were both released on the same day in 2002, but Bad As Me manages to fuse Romantic Barfly Waits with Insane Homeless Guy Waits in a seamless and homogeneous way, like a wonderful tapestry of an extraordinary career.

That all said, he’s still capable of shocking and shaking you up. “Hell Broke Luce”, a stomping menace of a track, features Waits barking and cursing about the state of a nation at war. “That big fucking bomb made me deaf!” he bawls, and it’s as funny as it is surprising. Though elsewhere you’ll find much familiarity, with opener Chicago revisiting the train-track blues shuffle with doomy bassoon and peppy harmonica; it could have appeared on any album from the last 25 years, and Rain Dogs in particular. The title track itself, which we were first introduced to via a hilarious presentation on his website that took a swipe at file-sharing, was a fair indication that he was in a playful mood and ready to revisit that Delta sound again, while the country-soaked “Last Leaf” and closer “New Year’s Eve” also witness the troubadour of the 70s back exploring the weepy. The latter, it should be noted, borrows a familiar trick that surely only Waits can get away with, stealing a refrain from “Auld Lang Syne”, in the same way he borrowed chunks of “Waltzing Matilda” for his highly regarded Tom Traubert’s Blues, and it has a similar seductive sentimentality.

Like his hero Charles Bukowski, who managed to find some sort of peace and acceptance towards the end of his career, Waits’s grotesque portrait has become oddly more palatable, if still a grouch and a troublemaker and a loon. Be warned, this is no obituary: the irascible 61-year-old still has fire in his belly despite foregoing the moonshine these days. There’s still plenty of life in the old dog yet.

Jeremy Allen is the music editor of Topman GENERATION and writes for NME, The Quietus and The Stool Pigeon