Tom Waits, the 61-year-old veteran musical maverick, released his first album of entirely new music in seven years on October 25.
The 17th studio album by famously rough-voiced California-based singer, who was inducted into the Rock'n'Roll Hall of Fame by Neil Young this year, continues his obsession with telling tales from the wrong side of the tracks.
The album's songs feature heartache, loss, betrayal, darkness and death. But more than anything, Waits' songs are about ordinary people trying to survive in a fucked up world.
"Maybe things will be better in Chicago," the character -- forced to move on by hard times -- hopes in album's chugging, bluesy opener Chicago.
With the economic crisis devastating the lives of millions of US people -- and the Occupy Wall Street movement rising in response -- the album is well timed.
Few artists have so consistently sought to capture the lives of the losers in US society. There is a reason HBO's The Wire, acclaimed for its honest portrayal of the streets and institutions of Baltimore, has a Waits' song for its theme.
Waits has rarely been explicitly political, but more explicit social criticism has crept in to his songs in recent years.
God's Away on Business, from 2002's Blood Money, takes a cynical tour through a corrupt world. With lines such as "Who are the ones that we left in charge? Killers, thieves and lawyers", it featured in the anti-corporate documentary Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room.
And 2006's triple album of new and previously unreleased songs Orphans, featured Road To Peace, on the Israel/Palestine conflict.
In that song, Waits takes his lyrics straight from New York Times reports of a Hamas suicide bombing and Israel's ruthless response -- to haunting effect.
It takes the line of "condemning the violence on both sides", but includes an explicit jab at his own government: "So tell me, why are we arming the Israeli army with guns and tanks and bullets?"
The themes of corporate exploitation and war return on Bad As Me.
Talking At the Same Time takes on the economic crisis and the greed of the 1%. Waits sings: "Well, it's hard times for some, for others it's sweet. Someone makes money from the blood on the street."
Hell Broke Luce is a stomping, nightmarish song about the horror of war told from a rank-and-file soldier's perspective. The soldier deals with the horror, while "the only ones responsible for the mess got their sorry asses stapled to a goddamn desk".
The members of the US military joining the Occupy movement in rising numbers would agree with the song's sentiment -- such as the marine who joined Occupy Wall Street with a placard reading: "2nd time I've fought for my country. 1st time I've known my enemy."
The songs are co-written with his long-time collaborator and wife Kathleen Brennan (about whom Waits wrote Jersey Girl, the 1980 song that achieves the rarest of feats -- a love song that is genuinely touching).
Musically, it is Waits' most accessible album for some time.
Waits is known for his deep-throated bark (a YouTube mash-up portrays the Cookie Monster supposedly singing "God's Away on Business" and, judging by the comments, many truly believe it is the puppet's voice). But on Bad As Me, he shows his vocal range.
At times, Waits croons in falsetto. He has done this before, but it is part of why many of largely glowing reviews have called the album an introductory "taster" of Waits' music.
It covers various musical styles and does so in a more conventional fashion than some past albums -- swinging from full-blooded rockabilly to the kind of tear-jerking ballads that have inspired covers by artists such as Bruce Springsteen, Bob Seger, Rod Stewart and even The Eagles.
There is less focus on experimenting with sounds -- via homemade instruments for percussion and other effects. Waits told the October 20 New York Times: “On this record it was less, ‘O.K., let’s be super rigorous and create music completely without precedent,’ and more just ’Let’s rock the house.’"
There are Spanish guitar-tinged songs, a swinging horn section and the talented Waits regular Marc Ribot cutting loose on guitar.
Red Hot Chili Peppers' bassist Flea plays on two tracks and Keith Richards' guitar features on three. Richards joins Waits in singing the melancholy-tinged "Last Leaf" -- a rough-hewed song of defiance in the face of impending death.
The closing track, "New Year's Eve", is Waits at his best. It is a story of a hard-luck group on New Year's Eve, featuring drug addicts, police arrests and the protagonist insisting -- amid singing of Auld Lang Syne -- that he is getting out of there for good.
It is like a scene from The Wire expressed in song.
Watch for covers of this one -- it has almost all the qualities to see it do for New Year's Eve what The Pogues' Waits-influenced "Fairytale of New York" did for Christmas Eve. Not quite, but it gets close.
It is not a groundbreaking record. But, as a Huffington Post review said, Bad As Me finds "Tom Waits in peak form".
Waits has been extremely influential among other musicians, but has never enjoyed the mainstream success his talent deserves. But the fact someone like Waits is still producing such quality material after nearly 40 years shows that, despite the way capitalism deforms popular culture, there are still gems in the dirt.
'Maybe things will be better in Chicago'
'Well we bailed out the millionaires. They've got the fruit, we've got the rind.'
'Now I'm home and I'm blind and I'm broke. What's next?'