The first time I heard Tom Waits sing I burst out laughing. His harsh voice growling over a web of plunking percussion and groaning trombones made me think of the Cookie Monster, drunkenly stumbling through a bizarre circus.
A couple years later a friend of mine lent me a copy of Rain Dogs, one of several Waits releases widely considered essential classics. It took a few listens, but eventually I reached a conclusion that seems to be remarkably common among those who have taken the time to digest Waits’ music – Tom Waits is perhaps the greatest singer/songwriter of the past forty years.
What about Bob Dylan? Over the course of his career, Tom Waits has demonstrated something that has eluded even the greats. Waits has delivered consistently brilliant songwriting. His seventeen studio albums each feature more jaw-dropping lyricism and memorable melody than most musicians are able to conjure in an lifetime.
Waits began his illustrious career crooning delicate love songs over jazzy piano and gentle acoustic guitar. In those early days, Waits’ voice was smooth, soft and instantly pleasing.
As his career progressed, Tom began exploring more bluesy styles, and his voice took on a grittier quality. Although Tom was clearly beginning to become influenced by a more avant garde approach to songwriting, nothing could have possibly prepared the music world for the seismic shift in style Tom took on his 1983 release, Swordfishtrombones.
Tom’s voice sounded as if it had been grated with extra-coarse sandpaper while he gargled a mixture of gravel and whisky. Instead of singing about love, Tom growled about vagabonds, prostitutes and one-armed dwarves.
Gentle acoustic instrumentation was replaced with distorted guitars, moaning horns and clattering percussion. The only remaining vestige of Tom’s early work was his penchant for writing gorgeous ballads.
Swordfishtrombones sounded like nothing else in the world, and in the thirty years since its release, Tom has continued to explore his eccentricities.
Tom Waits’ seventeenth record, Bad As Me, was released on Oct. 21. Bad As Me is a brilliant record, highlighting many of the unique styles Tom has explored over the course of his career while also showcasing Tom’s continuing desire to experiment both musically and lyrically.
“Talking At The Same Time” features surprisingly supple falsetto vocals and the fabulous observation, “everybody knows umbrellas cost more in the rain.” “Pay Me” is a gorgeously sad ballad about an exiled performer who reaches the dreadful realization, “though all roads may not lead you home, all roads lead to the end of the world.”
“Hell Broke Luce,” the strongest track on the album, is a bombastic anti-war song which clangs and chugs to the violent holler of “LEFT, RIGHT, LEFT.”
Overall, Bad As Me stands up against Waits’ best works, and that is perhaps the strongest praise any album can receive; it’s a truly fantastic album from one of the world’s true musical geniuses.