Singer-songwriter Tom Waits has always been something of an acquired taste. To his followers, he’s one of the greatest living songsmiths and music personalities, capable of creating unforgettable tracks such as “Anywhere I Lay My Head.” To his detractors, he comes off more like an unpalatable mix between an off-tune carnival barker and Cookie Monster.
That’s why it may be strange to hear his newest record, “Bad as Me,” described as musical comfort food. But, for his fans, that’s exactly what it entails. His first original release since 2004’s “Real Gone,” the album doesn’t necessarily have anything groundbreaking, certainly not the leaps and bounds previous record “Swordfishtrombones” represented for him.
It offers the same cast of downtrodden characters, the same ballads and blues rockers and the same unmistakable voice, and it remains a great formula. Though it’s unlikely to sway any of Waits’ critics, it’s a return to form that’s cause for celebration for his fans.
The opening track, “Chicago,” kicks off with familiar horn flourishes and Waits’ croon as he tells a tale of a down-on-their-luck couple taking to the road. “Pay Me” sounds like it could be an outtake from 1987’s “Frank’s Wild Years,” with New Orleans accordion and jangling piano.
Guitarist Marc Ribot, who left perhaps the strongest stamp on “Real Gone” with his primal tones, even returns for all but two tracks on “Bad as Me.” Yet, somehow this familiarity doesn’t diminish the album’s impact, but actually strengthens it as Waits comfortably settles back into the position he left open for seven years.
It helps that the songs are as strong as they are recognizable. For instance, “Pay Me” is one of Waits’ prettiest songs in recent memory, a lullaby for a pariah with the refrain “they pay me not to come home.”
Another song with a demanding title, “Kiss Me,” recalls Waits’ early years as a barroom crooner in albums “Closing Time” and “Small Change,” while still showcasing his gravelly, well-worn voice.
One track that does provide a bit of shock is “Hell Broke Luce,” a genuinely ferocious tune that may have Waits uttering “f—” for the first time. The song addresses war, one of Waits’ favorite subjects in recent years, at perhaps the artist’s most direct, with descriptions of battle injuries and punctuations of gunfire and artillery.
Another notable collaborator is Keith Richards, who plays guitar on four tracks, including “Satisfied.” This shambling rocker offers a playful rebuke of the Rolling Stones’ “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction,” as Waits gleefully shouts that “I will have satisfaction” and “Mr. Jagger and Mr. Richards, I will scratch where I’ve been itching” like a drunkard demanding a drink before being taken in.
Perhaps the best quality of “Bad as Me” is that Waits still seems engaged and excited to be making new music, even after decades of putting out albums. His freedom recalls fellow statesman Bob Dylan, who puts out Christmas records and performs songs in a near-unrecognizable form simply because he can.
However, Waits has produced a far superior artistic product. From the opening horns and impassioned bark in “Chicago” to the closing corralling of the “auld lang syne” chorus in “New Year’s Eve,” “Bad as Me” has Waits returning to form and at the top of it.