"With my coat and my hat/I say goodbye to all that," snarls Tom Waits on "Chicago," hopping a train rhythm of horns, harmonica, banjo and electric guitars. The opener of his latest set is a classic American narrative: a hard-luck case setting out for a better life. But this is 2011, the world bled by Wall Street, and things are fucked everywhere. Dude is hoping against hope, but no one - himself included - expects this to end well.
Braying and crooning in Salvation Army finery like a visitor from our last Depression, Bad as Me riffs on money, jobs and bosses; also love, war and unending struggle as the norm. It's no big departure for a 61-year-old singer-songwriter who has been representing as a skid-row bard since his twenties. But it plays to the moment as Waits refines his prickly brand of time travel. It might also be his most broadly emotional set ever; certainly it's his most sharply focused record since the game-changing tag team Swordfishtrombones and Rain Dogs decades ago.
At its heart are electric guitars. Marc Ribot's jagged, Cuban-tinged riffs have helped define Waits' sound since the 1980s. Keith Richards and David Hidalgo (Los Lobos) bring their own takes on American roots music - Richards (who plays on four cuts) with slurred Chuck Berry licks, Hidalgo with corrido-style blues. Bassists Flea and Les Claypool add angular funk, while a circus trailer of other ace musicians tumbles across the stage.
But Waits' voice is the star - that weird instrument that can seem like shtick on first blush but turns out to be as emotionally true an exaggeration as Thom Yorke's falsetto. His high register is heartbreaking on the grim ballad "Talking at the Same Time," ditto his tenor croon on the epigrammatic "Pay Me" ("The only way down from the gallows is to swing"). And his phlegmy bark destroys everything in its path on "Hell Broke Luce," a tale told in military-chant cadence over Richards' and Ribot's strafing guitars, New Orleans funeral brass and gunfire. "I lost my buddy and I wept, wept," Waits' damaged soldier shouts above the din. "I come down from the meth/So I slept, slept." It's a devastating song, as powerful as anything he's done.
There are moments where shtick gets the better of him. See "Satisfied," a juke-joint rejoinder to the Stones' "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction," whose narrator addresses "Mr. Jagger and Mr. Richards" while Mr. Richards riffs along. Who could resist? Waits is an artist, but he understands - as he confessed at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony last year - that he's also in showbiz. It may be a dodgy business. But it doesn't get much better than this.
Listen to "Bad As Me":