The good news about Bad As Me, the 17th studio album by Tom Waits, is that most of it sounds little like the title track leaked for streaming over a month ago. "Bad As Me," the song, breaks absolutely no new ground in the Waits canon, and, given that he's an artist beloved as a pioneer, this felt disturbing at first. "Bad As Me" bellows, it grinds, it huffs along in that chugging junkyard-blues jalopy of an arrangement—it is, in other words, a sound and a style which stamp over a dozen Tom Waits songs released in the last decade.
But no other song on Bad As Me, released Tuesday, cowers so low in this trench. No other song journeys far from the known, either. Retreads abound on the album; longtime fans will recognize threads pulled from Waits' last 30 years, sewn into a collection of shorter-than-usual tracks. In a sense, the record could have been called A Tom Waits Reader, priming newcomers by concentrating and conveniently distilling his madman elements.
But if the biggest crime of a Tom Waits record is sounding too much like Tom Waits, then send it to the jailhouse, cuffed and booked. Sure, it can sit alongside Dylan's latest or Springsteen's latest, which sound like paint-by-numbers versions of their respective artists. The difference is you'll actually want to listen to the Waits record over and over again. Is a paint-by-numbers kiss from your girlfriend, whom you believe to be the most beautiful girl in the world, anything to grouse about?
In fact, Waits tackles that very question. "Kiss Me" begs of a partner to make their love feel new, with all the unexpected thrills—to "kiss me like a stranger." (The song solidly evokes "Blue Valentine," from 1978.) But the main theme of the record is that of leaving: to "Chicago," where things will be better; to "Get Lost," evoking a lost Brando speech; to Vegas on "New Year's Eve," with $200 and a stack of LPs. Home is such an unobtainable here that the narrator of "Pay Me" is paid by his family for never returning.
Waits' own concept of home means recruiting his best players. Much has been made of Keith Richards' presence on this record, but he brings more name than style; no one will pick him out of the mix above the marvelous playing of Marc Ribot, David Hidalgo, Augie Myers and Waits' own son Casey. He's certainly no match for Waits himself, who leads this group through bogs of cacophony, nostalgia and malaise—and back again. If he truly is the "last leaf on the tree," as he sings on "Last Leaf," then here's hoping Tom Waits holds on until springtime, when fresh ideas are in bloom.