By Todd Ferguson

I remember my first Tom Waits song, "Tom Traubert's Blues," like the first time I was racked by a girl in middle school. [Rack: v. To kick or knee one in the balls, in Texas. -ed] Not fondly, but viscerally. His voice ruptured that which I was accustomed to hearing. Unlike the kick to the crotch, however, I wanted more. There was something intimidating, yet soothing, about his raw and caustic ­­soul. The “brawlers, bawlers, and bastards” Waits sings about can haunt you.

Bad As Me is no exception. In many ways a microcosm of Waits’ entire oeuvre, his new album traverses gritty up-tempo train-chugging blues (“Chicago”), Elvis-like swagger (“Get Lost”), barroom bravado (“Bad As Me”), and existential angst (“Last Leaf”). Its varied musical portraits reflect the diverse personas that populate our culture: the ruined life of a recent war vet (“Hell Broke Luce”), addiction (“New Year’s Eve”), and the white noise of domesticity (“Talking At the Same Time”). A gallery of misfits and anti-heroes, all of them desperate, broken, and searching.

“Pay Me,” a song about the misery of an aspiring actress-cum-dancer, is the album's emotional nucleus, pulling together some of its key themes: the quest for, and question of, home; the irony of redemption; fatalism tinged with a fuck-you smirk. The song is starkly furnished with guitars, strings, accordion, and piano, allowing Waits to mourn, his voice hushed and fatigued. As usual, he's a brilliant storyteller:

You know I gave it all up for the stage
They fill my cup up in the cage
It’s nobody’s business but mine when I’m low
To hold yourself up is not a crime here you know
At the end of the world.

Like us, Waits’ characters are full of delusions and contradictions. We simultaneously long for and shun that which is impossible to reach (“home,” for example). In this way, “Pay Me” closes ambiguously, juxtaposing fate and hope.

And though all roads will not lead you home my girl
All roads lead to the end of the world
I sewed a little luck up in the hem of my gown
The only way down from the gallows is to swing.

But in the final coda, resignation is mitigated by that fuck-you smirk: “And I’ll wear boots instead of high heels/And the next stage that I am on it will have wheels.” Nodénouement in a Waits song is ever simple or one-dimensional.

I still find Waits intimidating, his stories haunting. But I’m learning to accept and embrace his brawlers, bawlers, and bastards. After all, these are stories about us.

Photo: For the Sake of the Song