3.5 stars (out of 4)
“All aboard,” Tom Waits hollers at the outset of his 17th studio album, “Bad as Me” (Anti).
It’s an invitation to a typically wild ride through the nether regions of Waits’ subconscious, a place populated with the ghosts of old blues brawlers, saloon crooners, wasted hep-cats and burned out Mariachi bands.
The burlap-voiced singer has always tangoed with pre-rock ‘n’ roll traditions and given them his own wicked twist. On “Bad as Me” he keeps things relatively compact; most of the 13 songs check in at under 4 minutes, a veritable pop album by Waits standards.
As usual, the singer surrounds himself with accomplices who know how to inject any song with a bad case of the creeps. In addition to longtime sidekicks such as guitarist Marc Ribot and bassist Larry Taylor, Keith Richards and keyboardist Augie Meyers are assigned key roles. Richards’ guitar raunch and Meyers’ terse, say-more-with-less style mesh with Waits’ bruised vocals and desperate narratives.
He yelps like a rockabilly hellion on “Get Lost,” and leaps into falsetto on “Talking at the Same Time” as if spooked by the setting, with its ominous Spaghetti Western guitars and what sounds like mice scrambling across a piano (a great Meyers’ touch). “Pay Me” is an outlaw’s lament from “the end of the world,” where accordions and fiddles play while bodies swing from the gallows. “Hell Broke Luce” drops the listener into a war zone, with its industrial-strength marching rhythm, and “Last Leaf” has Richards shading Waits in a broken-down duet from a graveyard. Every one of these songs sounds like it could be a movie. David Lynch, it’s your turn.