Waits’ last long-player proper, 2004’s Real Gone, was notable for featuring his first overtly political song, Day After Tomorrow. Seven years later, the world’s in no fitter state and Tom sounds even more pissed off. Where Day After Tomorrow was a lament from the perspective of a soldier on the front line, Bad As Me’s Hell Broke Luce is its exhausted, raging, relentless successor, full of vitriol at those responsible for the war merely getting “their sorry ass stapled to a goddamn desk”, while those out fighting it lose everything they left behind at home. It’s punctuated by Keith Richards’ explosive guitar lines going off like the “big fucking bomb” that made Waits’ protagonist deaf.
This isn’t the first time that Waits and Keef have shared a studio, but here it’s an apt pairing, as much of Bad As Me is shot through with rockabilly verve; Get Lost bursts with youthful abandon, as if releasing the pent-up urges of a generation of 50s teens, while Back In The Crowd gently steps into prime Elvis ballad territory. Elsewhere, Everybody’s Talking hitches a litany of woes to the financial depression, setting the lot against a world’s worth of chatter that offers precious little help.
With Real Gone’s attitude and the precision songwriting of his Island years, this is the sound of Waits harnessing his wild bag of tricks to a fully cohesive whole. Closer New Year’s Eve ends it all with a tale of dissolution. Deftly working Auld Lang Syne’s refrain into his own melody, the song walks that bittersweet tightrope between regret for the past and looking out towards the future. Well, what’s out there is anyone’s guess.
With half the album’s cast of characters fixing to leave and the other half trapped where they are, yet defiant in the face of human frailty, Bad As Me is, to some extent, business as usual, but with a sharp focus that makes it as good as Waits has ever been.