"Bad As Me" continues in Tom Waits' tradition of romanticizing figures on the fringes of society.
"Bad As Me" continues in Tom Waits' tradition of romanticizing figures on the fringes of society. Michael O'Brien
Tom Waits is a shapeshifter. His ever-changing sound sets him apart from his peers; no other artists who have endured as long as he has can claim to have adopted as broad a sonic palette with as much success. For all the changes he's made, though, the term "re-inventing" never seems to have applied to him. It helps that Waits' various permutations have all been at least tangentially related — he's never made a techno album, for example. But every time he begins to wander down a different road, it doesn't feel like he's trying out another genre just for the hell of it, but that he's simply stretching out into other areas of his own repertoire. Anything he creates that sounds radically new to listeners is probably old news to him; we just hadn't heard it yet.
Such frequent stylistic shifts can come across as disingenuous — no one really bought into it when Neil Young released a traditional rockabilly album less than a year after a foray into synth-heavy new wave. Part of what helps Waits avoid such pratfalls is that he's maintained an air of mystery about himself from day one. When he chooses to engage in the occasional interview, he speaks in such a roundabout, peculiar fashion that it can be difficult to tell whether he's ever telling the truth at all. But not knowing much about the mundane details of his daily life makes it easier to believe that the man who started his career as a maudlin piano balladeer also came up with the warped circus dirges of Swordfishtrombones. In Waits' case, a little bit of distance from his audience goes a long way.
Waits has long romanticized outcasts, misfits and other figures on the fringes of society, and his new "Bad As Me" carries on in that tradition. With jagged, overdriven guitars, cavernous drums and a bleating horn section at his back, Waits rattles off a series of wry puns and one-liners, at once both mocking and applauding the unnamed character who he claims is "the same kind of bad as me." Although the broad idea behind the song has been a recurring theme in Waits' work since his early days singing about sad-sack barflies and bums, "Bad As Me" has roots stretching directly to "Big in Japan," a song from 1999 that finds the grizzled singer repeatedly aiming the same type of clever put-downs against himself. Although it may draw from his earlier work, it also comes across as more self-referential than repetitive, because Waits has spent the years in the interim exploring other sounds. "Bad As Me" isn't a retread — it just sounds like Waits finishing a sentence he started more than a decade ago.