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Waits over for return to form

Kathleen Brennan co-writes and co-produces each of the 14 tracks on this new Tom Waits album. Thankfully, it seems her contribution has been to make a silk purse out of the sow's-ear shtick that Waits peddled over three CDs on Orphans or the codswallop bombast of the live Glitter and Doom from two years ago.

We have the missus to thank for the album that Waits lovers are holding dinner parties to play to those friends who they feel know nothing of the zeitgeist.

"Get in. Get out. No f**kin' about," she instructed.

Probably having written all these tunes since 2004's Real Gone, for the most part, he's hit the rusty old crucifixion nail on the head.

If you can get past the notion that maybe you're listening to a 62-year-old Captain Beefheart tribute act giving it large, then the title track is probably for you. "They told me you were no good . . . you're the same kind of bad as me."


But let's focus on the positives.

In his own quaint way, Waits is every bit as much a musicologist as Ry Cooder. On the album opener, Chicago, he combines staccato brass, rattling banjo and a blues wail to celebrate the social and cultural shift from rural to urban that came to define the American nation's identity.

"I say goodbye to all that, maybe things will be better in Chicago." And, titfers off to Tom, he crams the whole shooting gallery, and a hint of a train ride, into 2.15 minutes. Such economy demands you hit the repeat button.

The star of this show is the ensemble playing throughout. Notably longtime sidekick Marc Ribot on guitar. In a patchwork of songs and styles that evoke a restless world of transients, migrants, the dispossessed, the lonely and the press-ganged, Waits calls in the heavy artillery.


David Hidalgo (Los Lobos) switches between guitar and accordion. Augie Meyers (Sir Douglas Quintet) hits the old Vox organ. Keith Richards ups his game on a few tunes and Charlie Musselwhite rasps superior harmonica. Top stuff, all round.

The Stones' man seems to enjoy the hip-shaking boogie of Satisfied, an adamant response to the Glimmer Twins' '60s hit that Waits has joked is a "bit of a rant."

"I will have satisfaction," he insists over a lean barroom combo, "I will be satisfied." He even name checks Jagger and Richards, sneering, "I will scratch where I've been itching". It's the sort of late-night fun you'd expect Howlin' Wolf to have conjured up.

Bad As Me ranks as one of Waits' best albums. It's meatier and more meaningful than much of his schlock juvenilia. The sprawling narrative, Hell Broke Luce is a grisly, Brueghel-esque diary spewed out by a soldier, who says, "I had a good home but I left, right, left. That big f**king bomb made me deaf, deaf." It's a while since we've had as potent an anti-war song as this. HHHHI