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MICHELE NORRIS, HOST:

The gravelly-voiced Tom Waits has made a career singing about characters who were down on their luck. His new album, "Bad As Me," continues that tradition. And according to our critic Will Hermes, it's especially resonant given the current state of the nation.

WILL HERMES, BYLINE: Tom Waits generally sings like a psychotic carnival barker or a drunken lounge crooner, and I mean that as a compliment.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BAD AS ME")

TOM WAITS: (Singing) You're the head on the spear. You're the nail on the cross. You're the fly in my beer. You're the key that got lost. You're the letter from Jesus on the bathroom wall. You're mother superior with only a brawl. You're the same, you're the same, you're same kind of bad as me.

HERMES: It's not everyone's cup of tea, that voice. Pushed to extreme like the characters in his songs, his voice is an exaggeration full of truth. A blues singer like Screamin' Jay Hawkins or Howlin' Wolf or Radiohead's Thom Yorke. And the songs on "Bad As Me" sound truer than ever to me, partly because Waits' songwriting and arranging are still extremely potent and partly because his thematic desperation fits this particular moment in history like a ragged glove.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TALKING AT THE SAME TIME")

WAITS: (Singing) Get a job, save your money, listen to Jane. Everybody knows umbrellas cost more in the rain. And all the news is bad. Is there any other kind? And everybody's talking at the same time.

HERMES: Tom Waits has a line in one song about bailing out millionaires and plenty of lyrics about money and jobs and the lack thereof. But his music draws on the sweep of American history, early rock and roll, old Mexican ballads, Vaudeville-era pop. And you realize that these themes are depressingly eternal.

Waits also sings about the power of love, about Eisenhower and Elvis and Wolf Man Jack, about unlucky bodies piled up at the morgue. And on a chilling song called "Hell Broke Luce," about a damaged soldier furiously trying to comprehend all he's lost and the reasons why.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HELL BROKE LUCE")

WAITS: (Singing) Hell broke Luce. Left, right, left. What did you do before the war? I was a chef. I was a chef. What was your name? It was Geoff, Geoff. I lost my buddy and I wept, wept. I come down from the meth, so I slept, slept. I had a good home, but I left, left.

HERMES: At this point, Tom Wait seems to be like Woody Allen, so respected by his peers that the best of the best come out for his projects. That was Keith Richards of the Stones on that last song, along with Marc Ribot, an old Waits crony who might, at this moment, be America's greatest session guitarist.

But Waits is also an auteur like Allen and all the players ultimately serve his vision. Here, Waits is an old pro singing slightly freakish songs which, after a couple of listens, reveal themselves as not so freakish at all, just very human.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PAY ME")

WAITS: (Singing) They pay me not to come home.

NORRIS: Our reviewer is Will Hermes. The new album from Tom Waits is called "Bad As Me," and you can listen to it at NPRmusic.org.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PAY ME")

WAITS: (Singing) They say it's easy to get stuck in this town just like Joan.

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