Back when The Old, Weird America, Greil Marcus' expansive treatise on Bob Dylan's 1967 collaboration with the Band, was first published in hardcover in 1997 (the same year, incidentally, that Smithsonian Folkways reissued Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music), it was called Invisible Republic. It was an apt, even poignant title that still never managed to evoke half the wistfulness its paperback replacement did. Marcus' disciples quickly rallied around the new phrase, adopting it as a kind of credo, a genre, and an aspirational aesthetic that owed as much to Robert Frank and Jack Kerouac as it did to Charley Patton and the Carter Family. And while collective cultural nostalgia (for times real or imagined) has become part of the zeitgeist, longing for a dusty and peculiar past-- for the misbegotten and the unfussed-with, the archaic and the odd-- isn't a particularly new phenomenon. Marcus sought and found those things in pre-war vernacular American music, in the songs Smith culled from his crates of 78s and gathered under a Celestial Monochord.Tom Waits hears them everywhere.
Bad as Me is Waits' first proper collection of studio material since 2004's Real Gone (in 2006, he released Orphans: Brawlers, Bawlers & Bastards, a 3xCD mélange of lost-and-found tracks). He's backed by a cabal of familiar, gnarly-faced noisemakers (David Hildalgo, longtime bandleader Marc Ribot, Keith Richards, Flea), and again shares writing and producing credit with his wife and frequent collaborator Kathleen Brennan. Waits' jerky grandpa bark, which he'd honed and perfected by his mid-twenties, was reverse-engineered to age well. Now, perhaps freed from the burden of approximation, he sounds especially wild and gleeful, hollering with deranged aplomb. Bad as Me is as essential-- and as essentially weird-- as anything he's done before.
Bad as Me comprises mostly love songs: paeans to lasting love, the kind that changes and bends. Even when Waits is yearning for freedom, as he does on the drunk and twitchy "Get Lost", he still wants his longtime girl by his side. "When you wear that real tight sweater/ You know I can't resist/ It's been that way forever baby/ Ever since we kissed," he croons, his voice raw and giddy; he sounds like a guy who was pummeled by a car, got up, staggered off, and started singing. On the title track, over piano, baritone sax, and spastic guitar stabs, he celebrates mutual failure ("You're mother superior in only a bra/ You're the same kind of bad as me"), positioning compatible sin as its own triumph over circumstance. Elsewhere, he adheres to old-fashioned ideals about the "power of a good woman's love," lamenting, as he does on the ramshackle "Raised Right Men", the ways in which imperfect husbands ("Gunplay Maxwell and Flat Nose George, Ice Pick Ed Newcomb") routinely fail their partners.
None of this is particularly new lyrical or musical fodder for Waits, and, nearly 20 records in, he's clearly locked into a formula-- however atypical, however idiosyncratic-- he's not particularly keen to abandon (read enough interviews, and you'll also see him trotting out the same stock punchlines-- and you'll still laugh). Still, he does push his voice here, and to wildly gratifying ends. On "Talking at the Same Time", a woozy, horn-accented shuffle (it evokesEnnio Morricone, David Lynch, Alice in Wonderland), he adopts a soft, wheezing falsetto, while on "Pay Me", he sounds docile and sleepy, like he's singing from bed (it's a heartbreaking choice for a track that contains the admission, "They pay me not to come home").
As with any Tom Waits album, there are a few absurd affectations at work, both on record and off (in a recent New York Times profile, Waits is caught driving a black Suburban with a newspaper announcing the inauguration of John F. Kennedy spread across the passenger seat) but there's enough variation here that all that oldness and weirdness-- all those frantic, busted melodies, all that carnie growl, all those sarsaparilla bottles banging around the backseat-- never gets tiresome. For all his indulgences, Waits never lingers too long; these tracks are concise and expertly edited, and Bad as Me feels as new as it does ancient.