By Jason Schneider"The amount of time that you spend on anything should not, and will never, directly correspond to how important or interesting it is," Tom Waits says. "A moment of inspiration will far surpass spending six years on something."
Most fans of Waits would surely concur, and in large part prefer it that way, knowing that catching up with the fortunes of the barstool philosophers, apocalyptic street preachers, and other characters that most often appear in his songs is a reward for patience that few artists can offer.
Waits' new album, Bad As Me, is his first collection of new music since 2004's Real Gone, on which experiments with turntables and beatboxing accentuated a more-caustic-than-usual frame of mind. In contrast, Bad As Me finds Waits returning to his patented balance of dirt floor stomps and heart-wrenching ballads ― "brawlers and bawlers," to paraphrase the title of his essential 2006 rarities collection.
Even for fans accustomed to Waits' open challenges, Real Gone required some heavy lifting, although that was tempered by Waits eventually following it up with a live album recorded on his six-week Glitter & Doom tour in the summer of 2008. Donning his on-stage persona, Waits offered the recent material in a less cluttered manner, and that approach has carried over into Bad As Me.
Recorded at the start of 2011, the album is again co-produced by Waits' chief collaborator, his wife Kathleen Brennan, and features many of his core studio players: guitarist Marc Ribot, bassist Larry Taylor, and son Casey on drums. But with guest appearances from Keith Richards, Flea, David Hidalgo of Los Lobos, Sir Douglas Quintet organist Augie Meyers, and harmonica legend Charlie Musselwhite, Bad As Me follows in the relatively accessible tradition of Waits' most commercially successful albums, 1985's Rain Dogs and 1999's Mule Variations. In an eerie way, it almost seemed time for the next instalment of this ongoing drama to appear, although Waits cannot say if he ever feels he's on a timetable.
"On one hand [these records] all happen very quickly, and on the other hand they take forever," he admits. "With every song, if you know how to crack them open, you can find hundreds of other songs within them. The first couple of songs are always the hardest and serve as icebreakers. Once the ice is broken, you go into the freezing water and float downstream. Then when you're out of breath, you realize you're half a mile from the hole you went in, and you drown in front of a class of elementary school kids."
Speaking in such shocking metaphors has become a Waits trademark in this current phase of his career. His unique gift for crafting modern fables now attracts admirers from all musical genres, and coupled with his frequent film roles playing a wide range of shady characters ― including Satan in Terry Gilliam's The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus ― Waits has emerged as a unique presence within the global arts scene, someone unafraid to shine a light on the world's dark corners, albeit with enough wit and style to make it romantic.
When asked about playing out the roles he writes for himself in his songs, Waits in some ways speaks like an actor, distancing himself from the process. "The ingredients of songs can easily include a stain on your bedroom wall, or the flavour of a soda they've stopped making ― a variety of recollections over one chord. And the title is a girl's name that you made up. So songs have humble and peculiar origins, and by the time they become songs they conceal most of what really happened. They usually send you off in a direction that's completely incorrect. It doesn't mean they're not interesting, it just means that the truth is overrated."
That may be so, but many Waits fans can attest to discovering his music at the onset of adulthood, the moment when life's artifice is exposed for the first time. Like Catcher In The Rye and On The Road, Waits' albums in the wake of his 1983 tour de force Swordfishtrombones can offer the sorts of lessons that those leaving home for the first time will never learn in school, i.e. the grim reality that one day we'll all be (as a track from 1992's Bone Machine plainly states) "Dirt In The Ground," or in the case of "Get Behind The Mule," that the best we can do is an honest day's work, although it still won't be enough to get what we really want.