It's been five years since Tom Waits released Orphans, a triple album that mixed new songs with a clear out of oddities and outtakes, making Bad as Me his first album of all-new material since 2004's scabrous and sonically inventive Real Gone. Couple that with his reputation as one of the greatest musicians of the last 40 years and it's fair to say that expectations for Bad as Me are high.
The album ignites more than begins, the hot, horn-fuelled blues of Chicago rushing straight into Raised Right Men's dagger-like organ stabs. Talking at the Same Time offers a withering report on the financial crisis ("Someone makes money when there's blood in the street"), Waits crooning in his familiar, eerie falsetto while slide guitar blooms over a brushed backbeat. But with the disposable roadhouse jive of Get Lost it becomes apparent that Bad as Me lacks the cohesiveness of a Swordfishtrombones or Bone Machine. While those albums develop a unity even as they leap between radically diverse styles, from avant-garde soundscapes to cocktail jazz and hellish blues, the songs here feel less closely related to one another. In this regard Bad as Me is similar to Mule Variations, which offered a taster menu of Waits' Island Records period. Seeing as it is the most successful album of his career, and a favourite of many for whom it was the introduction to his work, this needn't be considered a bad thing.
It would be a twisted world where Bad as Me was judged a disappointment, as there isn't a dud on it. But it's also the Tom Waits album that most undeniably echoes previous works. Satisfied - a coil of spiky, swaggering energy - could segue straight into Big Black Mariah; Kiss Me is almost uncomfortably close to Blue Valentines; New Year's Eve, which stows a traditional, sentimental song (Auld Lang Syne) inside a boozy ballad, repeats the same sleight performed by Tom Traubert's Blues (that time with Waltzing Matilda) in 1976.
This seems a backward step for an artist who, certainly since the watershed of Swordfishtrombones in 1983, has attempted to resist repetition. The bracing experimentation of Real Gone, for example, was arrived at by Waits leaving his comfort zone and abandoning keyboards. But while portions of Bad as Me feel overly familiar there remain some outstanding moments here. Face to the Highway glimmers darkly with a world weariness bordering on disgust; the lyric of Last Leaf, a duet with Keith Richards (who has cropped up previously on Rain Dogs and Bone Machine), blends sorrow and sly humour as it both celebrates and laments being the "last leaf on the tree". It's the kind of broken-down plaint Waits has been singing since Closing Time in 1973, but is crusted with added pathos when it's coming from a 61-year-old. The album highlight, however, is the distorted stomp of Hell Broke Luce. Looping a fragment of Waits' wheezy exhalation alongside the croak of a tenor sax and a martial beat, the song gets inside the head of an American veteran of Iraq or Afghanistan - "Now I'm home, and I'm blind, and I'm broke" - and joins Real Gone's Day After Tomorrow and Orphans' Road to Peace as an artefact of Waits' late-flowering talent for addressing aspects of American foreign policy.
It's to be regretted that there isn't more here that calls attention to itself in the same way. Bad as Me mostly finds Waits roaming his property, repainting the fence instead of jumping over it into the next uncharted field. But while this isn't a great album it's still a very good one, and even lesser Waits is worth a lot in any other currency.