Like most popular musicians, Tom Waits is completely and totally insane. But while most pop stars confine their craziness to the tabloid pages, Waits gladly lets it spill into his sonic output by populating his bizarre musical backdrops with a variety of oddball characters and stories. This is a strange formula, but it’s consistently worked due to the strength of Waits’s performances, which allow even the weirdest songs to project a certain integrity. For more than thirty years, Waits has been so good that his audience is forced to take his nuttiness seriously. So when he fumbles on his new album, “Bad As Me,” it doesn’t just mean the vocals are a little off or the music’s a little boring; it means that the whole thing falls apart.
The record is messy, incoherent, and impossible to take seriously. Nowhere is this more apparent than on the title track, which melds a so-so lyric—something about Christianity and bras—with one of Waits’s least interesting vocal performances to date. Waits has relied on his raspy, one-of-a-kind voice to deliver the most seemingly ridiculous lyrics, and has always been capable of imbuing even the most surreal lines about donuts with a strange power, as on 1985’s “9th and Hennepin.” On the song “Bad As Me,” he sounds as if he’s struggling to make himself heard. There is no menace or danger in his performance; he just sounds embarrassingly overexcited, and that lapse in his delivery takes away any power the song might have had.
Similar difficulties emerge with the album’s quieter songs. “Pay Me,” for instance, features a delicate acoustic arrangement and a typically decicated vocal from Waits. Instead of contrasting in an interesting way, however, the two elements are simply at odds with each other. The uncertain, almost amateurish sound of Waits’s performance makes him seem unsure of himself, almost as if he had wandered into the wrong studio and was singing over an unfamiliar backing track.
Though Waits’s subpar vocals are the worst feature of “Bad As Me,” the instrumentals aren’t much better. The album’s lackluster, uninteresting soundscapes seem like a pale imitation of Waits’s 1980s heyday, mainly thanks to his pandering use of sampled beats and drum machines. Tellingly, the best songs on the record—the ballads “New Year’s Eve” and “Back in the Crowd”—don’t feature any digital instrumentation.
Though artists can certainly benefit by embracing new technologies, for Waits it’s a misguided move because his best work has a distinctly organic and romantically old-fashioned quality to it. His signature ramshackle beats are slightly off-kilter and fascinatingly unsteady. When that natural percussion is replaced by a coldly mechanical beat, Waits’s music loses much of its charm. Opener “Chicago,” for instance, features an overly repetitive sampled beat that only emphasizes the fact that the song doesn’t go anywhere; it’s simply content to grind along for a few minutes, and then end.
Needless to say, this quickly becomes tiring. And the choice to use sampled beats is disturbing for another reason, as it implies that Waits has gotten lazy. According to a 1985 interview published in British newspaper The Mail, Waits eschewed digital instrumentation during his heyday. Instead, he chose to make weird sounds by doing weird things like hitting a chest of drawers with a two by four. This probably didn’t add anything sonically to his records—noise is noise, after all—but it showed the devotion that Waits had to his music and the lengths to which he would go to get a specific sound. The decision to use generic digital beats on “Bad As Me” may signal the waning of that creative drive.
Despite all this, “Bad As Me” retains a certain respectability; even if Waits has gotten lazy and his vocals aren’t up to snuff, the sound of the record is still fairly unique. There’s still no one else making music like this;Waits, as always, is an original. The fact that he retains that status at the age of 61 is impressive. All the same, it’d be more impressive if “Bad As Me” was listenable as well as distinctive.
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