Tom Waits sounds rushed and fevered. There’s a blues harp deep in the mix and Keith Richards on guitar but it’s trombone and clarinet that give “Chicago” flavor. When Waits goes falsetto for the bluesy “Talking At The Same Time,” a horn section moans low and David Hildalgo trades licks with Marc Ribot.

Bad As Me is the most accessible and deeply satisfying Tom Waits album since 1999’s Mule Variations. A kaleidoscopic adventure, a meandering journey of beat poetry, lowdown characters and oddball arrangements that jar the senses at first but become right as rain after but a few listens. Waits inhabits a different voice for each track. He hiccups his way through “Get Lost” like some demented rockabilly singer from the 1950s. On “Pay Me” (“all roads lead to the end of the world”), with world-weary resignation, he sounds like a tired carnival barker who’s all barked-out. As he settles into silence, the music sounds like a merry-go-round on its final spin.

On the title track, over a wildly percussive carnival, he coughs out, spittle flying, “You’re the nail on the cross/You’re the fly in my beer/You’re the same kind of bad as me.” But he loves her. After all, these are love songs. Small wonder he follows it up with the romantic “Kiss Me” (“like a stranger once again”) and then “Satisfied,” where he howls like Howlin’ Wolf and Flea pops the bass.

Tom’s nothing if not philosophical. He even asks that musical question, “How many ways can you polish up a turd?” He shares vocals with Keith as they opine that they’re the “last leaf on the tree.” He grouses that maybe he “should go back to driving truck,” but thank goodness it’s only a fleeting thought because Bad As Me is the album of the year.

In A Word: Fascinating

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