My favorite album of 2011

We’re not who we thought we were at the beginning of this millennium. I’m not sure we’re anybody anymore.

We were probably somebody in 2001. Then planes ran into the WTC. Then came a couple of wars, one of which ended –- checking my watch –- yeah, about six hours ago. We also had a recession that’s still sleeping on our couch and farting up a storm.

Also, the democracy of technology failed to equalize us, and it certainly didn’t unify us. Your opinion is shit, my opinion is correct, and I don’t have to get into a point-by-point explanation of how my opinion is correct and yours is shit. If you challenge my thinking, I merely have to CAPS LOCK words like “Obamacare” and “Islamofascist” and “Repuglican" so I’ll look authoritative. I will scream myself into intellectual impenetrability. You’ll never know me, but you’ll never forget my screen name.

We don’t even have that much fun anymore. We used to play with Frisbees and Slip ‘n’ Slides, or if we were into a little cash, hit up Disneyland or Plato’s Retreat. (They weren’t strictly the same despite what you’ve heard.) Now what do we do for fun? Set up websites for the express purpose of spreading a hoax that Bon Jovi is dead.

Speaking of: We love that death now. We’re really into that death. It’s like the least inspirational Boy Scout leader imaginable.

We also have Kardashians now, and as docile as they appear to be, I have a feeling they’ve inadvertently stolen from all of us. First I think they took our capacity to be shocked. Then they took our will, and after that the keys to our house were easy pickin's.

And at some point in the last few years we all got together and thought that yes, indeed, we can, but in fact, we didn’t. Whether we didn’t was because people in fake founding-father wigs were standing on our throats preventing us from doing it, or because we just decided we had too many other things going on at the time to do it, the fact is, we didn’t. The streamers and confetti are now writing paper in Kenosha, or landfill in Utah.

Well, if there’s no one else to speak for us, at least we still have Andy Rooney around to articulate our… what? Aw, shit!

There were protest songs written over the last decade about some or all of the above points. None but one lasted. That was Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy,” because it summed up where we all were at the time, which was 2006: losing our connections to our heroes, our cultivated realities, and eventually ourselves. It was the last cry of our identities, and the scariest thing about “Crazy” is that is doesn’t have any answers. We didn’t know where we’d wind up or what would happen to us.

But now we know, and it’s Tom Waits’ latest album, Bad As Me.

To be on the level: Bad As Me addresses none of the specific causations expressed so far, except one. Waits saw no need. It would have been wasted energy. He hadn’t made a completely new album in seven years before this one. That left enough time for conditions to conspire and for him to see what was left at the precise time a diagnosis was needed.

A lot of characters on Bad As Me want to be somewhere, someone, or sometime else. Two songs talk about escaping local troubles on the open road, one with a specific destination (“Chicago,” which for me personally was ironic), the other with none (“Get Lost”). Two other songs talk about turning a blind eye to desires, whether they’re someone else’s (“Face To The Highway”) or one’s own, unrequited ones (“Back In The Crowd”). There are two songs about wistful, nostalgic memories – one about lost, presumably stronger archetypes (“Raised Right Man”), and one about love that’s lost its mystery (“Kiss Me”). Nobody wants to be where or who they are. They feel that way because they remember who they could have been, or who they thought they should aspire to be.

Most musicians have songs about that kind of displacement. But not many in their 60s. Bad As Me derives its power from the scary proposition that even a person for whom “there’s nothing in the world that I ain’t seen” can still feel unsettled enough to want to bolt. The song that bit is from is called “Last Leaf,” and it’s an unbelievably heartbreaking number about the loneliness of the last standing survivor, the one fragment of spring that autumn couldn’t kill. Hilariously, Waits’ backup singer on “Last Leaf” is Keith Richards. Tell me that wasn’t planned.

But elsewhere, Bad As Me teems with embracing uncertainty. The train to “Chicago” barrels through the speakers on wheels of tenor sax and muted snares, and the since-corrected optimism “What we need the Lord will give us.” “Get Lost” is a lumpy ‘50s rocker that dreams of old cruises just a car length behind James Dean, with another hopeful proclamation: “Time it don’t mean nothing/Money means even less.”

There are two other moments of remote, maybe coerced jubilation on the record. The title track forges a love story between two people who’ve been drawn together through their defects: “You skid in the rain/You’re trying to shift/You’re grinding the gears/You’re trying to shift/You’re the same kind of bad as meee!” The word “me” is sung in the excited voice of a kid getting a bike for Christmas. You just have to hear it. On “Satisfied” Waits not only embraces his own impending death, he gleefully depicts his eventual molecular decomposition. But before that happens, he’s going to do everything right that “Mr. Jagger and Mr. Richards” got wrong the first time. (Yep, Richards is on this song too, playing guitar.)

In between those songs lies the more remorseful wishes of Waits’ character (I’m pretending it’s one guy – hmm, no idea why, just hide all the mirrors please). He’s been alienated by the cross-purposes of everyone else on the planet on “Talking At the Same Time,” which he sings in a fragile falsetto. When he can’t figure out what everyone else expects of him, he just turns to the promise of the open road on “Face To The Highway” – but now that road seems less like a path out and more a conveyor belt to something just as undesired.

“Back In The Crowd” is one of the most outstanding ballads Waits has ever written. Directly copping the structures of your favorite Roy Orbison tearjerker, Waits decides the only remedy for being unloved is anonymity: “If you don’t want these arms to hold you/If you don’t want these lips to kiss you/If you found someone new/Put me back in the crowd/Put the sun behind the clouds.” You can read that two ways: Either the singer’s too weakened to stand on his own, or he’s eager to rejoin the faceless millions in hopes of finding someone again. (The next song in sequence, interestingly, is the title track: see above.) Both answers suffice for me, since “Back In The Crowd” is exactly the way I felt after every breakup that wasn’t my choice. This was back in the day. I don’t have breakups anymore.

We’ve covered the first nine songs on the album. (Not all of them – I haven’t talked about the mysteriously mournful “Pay Me”, but I think Tom might want you to figure that one out yourself.) Already it’s set a narrative pace and depth that Waits has never quite reached before, even when he’s tried on things like Franks Wild Years and The Black Rider. Escape, remembrance, longing, jubilation, all of it earned, but somehow not explained.

Then all hell breaks loose. To say that the war in “Hell Broke Luce” [sic] is the literal root of all that comes before doesn’t feel accurate. But it’s the first of two songs, the album’s last, that describes where the person is right now, in real time, and it feels as shocking a revelation as the season finale of your favorite Showtime series. Musically “Hell Broke Luce” is a martial meltdown, supported by strict clopping rhythms, gunfire, and the only heavy metal guitar Waits has ever employed (it’ll be coming through your right speaker in just a minute). The soldier gets graphic and peculiar about his status: “That big fucking bomb made me deaf… Listen to the general every goddamn word/How many ways can you polish up a turd?/Left, right, left!”

“Hell Broke Luce” does two things Waits hasn’t really done before: It describes his wartorn plight the way a first-person correspondent would, and it points a finger (or the stump of one) at forces beyond the singer’s control: “How is it the only ones responsible for making this mess/Got their sorry asses stapled to a goddamn desk?” Those two moments break through what could be construed Waits’ last veneer of cool, from his lounge-lizard shtick to his hipster detachment. Emotionally, abstractly, they explain everything that’s preceded them on the album. Maybe all his albums. It also explains the coda that completes the album, “New Year’s Eve,” a story song in which the narrator’s life, and the lives of his compatriots, have lost all mechanical and emotional direction. There’s nothing left to do but sing “Auld Lang Syne.” So that’s exactly what Waits does, at the risk of being heavy-handed. He isn’t.

My favorite album of last year was Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. My accompanying article about that album was shoddy and inarticulate. I think the basic gist was that I felt like a hopeless, condemned piece of expired lunchmeat headed down the rabbit hole, and it seemed like the guy in Versace shades was coming down along with me. A lot of that still has to do with why I love Bad As Me, except I can explain this one better. It’s aware of the escape routes, memories, promise, heartbreak and hope of redemption through death. And although I’m not one to blame others for my own misfortunes (in public anyway – get me a few vodkas on credit and we could talk), I’m aware of outside forces that, let’s just say, haven’t helped.

It’s the world and all its problems, John Wesley Harding once sang. I think that’s too easy. On Bad As Me it’s the world and all its promise. It doesn’t look good. Nothing close to our childhood, that’s for sure. It looks worse than it once was. But now that finality feels almost comically approachable, we can look back on what our ideal was, and maybe believe that at some point, through some vaporous portal, possibly not on this earth, we might get the chance to shoot the whole damn thing over again from the top.

And at any rate, Keith Richards is still around, for Christ’s sake. He’s like a goddamn cockroach.

My top ten albums of 2011:

1. Bad As Me, Tom Waits

2. Circuital, My Morning Jacket

3. Everything’s Getting Older, Bill Wells & Aidan Moffat (a nice compare/contrast to Bad As Me if you’re interested)

4. Middle Brother, Middle Brother

5. El Camino, The Black Keys

6. James Blake, James Blake

7. Helplessness Blues, Fleet Foxes

8. Wounded Rhymes, Lykke Li

9. Watch The Throne, Jay Z & Kanye West

10. Nothing Is Wrong, Dawes
Post a Comment

Popular Recent Posts