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Reviews

Bad As Me

Stephen Tomkins

Tom Waits
ANTI Records

There is a myth about Tom Waits, all the more persuasive given the fact that he puts it around himself. It's said that he spent the first ten years of his career remaking the same album, till be broke free in 1983 on Swordfishtrombones with a new label, a new sound, and a new songwriting partner, his wife Kathleen Brennan.

The truth is that Waits has always been the most relentlessly restless reinventor. Almost every one of those early albums offered a major change of tune - dropping the country rock house band for jazz musicians, trading in his piano for guitar, wrecking his voice.

Since Swordfishtrombones he has become a musical phenomenon, beyond classification, except that he sounds like what they might play in the bars of the undead. He summons music like a struck-off necromancer from fairground organs, tubas, stools, brake drums, unnaturally played guitars and Indonesian seedpods, while he growls, howls, croons and - what's the word? Oh no, there isn't one. And yet it never sounds 'exotic' or 'kooky', but real. It's rough, glorious, and when you emerge from it after any amount of time everything else on your iPod sounds like a cliché.

And that's before we even mention the lyrics. Waits is rightly known as the poet of the vast shadowy underbelly of the modern world, giving his lead roles to hoods, whores, the homeless and homicides, but he also ranges from delicately capturing (delinquent) childhood friendship to the literally apocalyptic, always with a magnificently inventive turn of phrase. Stick a pin in the Tom Waits song book, and you're more likely to stab a line of genius than in anyone else's. From the world of rock'n'roll, only Dylan has as good a claim to be one of the great 20th-century artists (one of the main differences being that Waits has never produced a duff album). As well as offering a compelling if unpredictable spirituality in his lyrical content, Waits is a genuine, unironic gospel singer - though you get the impression that his God is a drinker.

All of which means you approach a new Tom Waits album with trepidation. On the one hand, it has a great deal to live up to, especially after seven years' wait. Will it be a terrible disappointment? Or a small one? On the other hand, if it's everything it should be, you can expect it to be hard work, like trying to get to know someone who keeps punching you in the ear. From discovering Waits at college, it took me 20 years and a major life crisis to learn to love him as he deserves, and each album has yielded up its secret delights only once we're in a long term relationship.

I was ready for anything, I thought, but this time Waits has floored me by being instantly enjoyable. It's perversely almost disappointing to be ready to sweat for something and instead be handed it on a plate, to be braced for a fight and instead be kissed.

'Talking at the Same Time' is a loping, falsetto lament for the moral bankruptcy of a society that bails out millionaires leaving their victims to sink, and confirms that Waits has reversed the trend by getting more political as the years pass. 'Bad As Me' raucously celebrates falling for someone who's no good ('and that's good enough for me'). 'Hell Broke Luce' is an angry marching song for the soldiers who pay the price for Washington's thirst for war, complete with out-of-tune brass solo. 'Pay Me' is gorgeous and disturbing, about being some kind of act but goodness knows what. And 'New Year's Eve' is one for the party when you want your guests to stop dancing and mope.

There's enough blues for this to be the Howlin' Wolf covers album Waits talked of recording, only with Waits writing the Wolf's songs. My one worry is that music that gives itself so readily might not stick around in your heart so long as the stuff that takes its time. No sign of that so far though. It's wonderful.

Steve Tomkins