Bad as Me is Tom Waits' first collection of new material in seven years. He and Kathleen Brennan -- wife, co-songwriter, and production partner -- have, at the latter's insistence, come up with a tight-knit collection of short tunes, the longest is just over four minutes. This is a quick, insistent, and woolly aural road trip full of compelling stops and starts. While he's kept his sonic experimentation -- especially with percussion tracks -- Waits has returned to blues, rockabilly, rhythm & blues, and jazz as source material. Instead of sprawl and squall, we get chug and choogle. For "Chicago" -- via Clint Maedgen's saxes, Keith Richards' (who appears sporadically here) and Marc Ribot's guitars, son Casey Waits' drums, dad's banjo, percussion and piano, and Charlie Musselwhite's harmonica (he appears numerous times here, too) -- we get a 21st century take on vintage R&B. Indeed, one can picture Big Joe Turner fronting this clattering rush of grit and groove, and this album is all about groove. Augie Meyers appears on Vox organ and Flea on bass to guide Waits' tablas and vocals on "Raised Right Men," a 12-bar stagger filled with delightful lyrical clichés from an America that has passed on into myth -- Waits does nothing to de-mystify this; he just makes it greasy and danceable. The slow, spooky "Talking at the Same Time" is still in blues form albeit with ska-styled horns to make things more exotic, as Waits waxes about the current state of economic affairs. He showcases history's circular nature as he bridges our national narrative from 1929-1941, and up to the present day: "Well it’s hard times for some/For others it’s sweet/Someone makes money when there’s blood in the street...Well we bailed out all the millionaires/They got the fruit/We got the rind..." Rockabilly rears its head on "Get Lost," with David Hidalgo strutting a solid '50s guitar snarl above the horns. Dawn Harms' violin and Patrick Warren's keyboards add textural dimension to Hidalgo's and Ribot's arid guitars on the apocalyptic blues of "Face to the Highway," with Waits offering startling, contrasting images in gorgeous rhymes. This track, and the two proceeding ones -- the forlorn carny ballad "Pay Me" and the wasted lover's plea in the West Texas mariachi of "Back in the Crowd" -- set up the latter half of the record, where there are more hard-edged blues and rockers, such as the spiky stomping title track, the cracked guitar ramble in "Satisfied," and the clattering, percussive anti-war rant "Hell Broke Luce" (sic). Between each of these songs are ballads. In the jazzy nightclub blues of "Kiss Me" and the country-ish folk of "Last Leaf" lie lineage traces to Waits' earliest material: the latter features Richards in a delightfully ruined vocal duet. Indeed, even the set-closer "New Year's Eve," with Hidalgo's guitars and accordion in one of Waits' signature saloon songs, quotes from "Auld Lang Syne" in the song's waning moments to send the platter off on a bittersweet, nostalgic note, reminding the listener of Waits' use of "Waltzing Matilda" in "Tom Traubert's Blues" all those years ago. Brennan's instincts were dead-on: it was time for a set of brief, tightly written and arranged songs -- something we haven't actually heard from Waits. Bad as Me is an aural portrait of all the places he's traveled as a recording artist, which is, in and of itself, illuminating and thoroughly enjoyable.
AllMusic Review by Thom Jurek