"The only way down from the gallows is to swing," Tom Waits urges in his half-sage, half-ghastly wheeze near the midpoint of his beautifully caustic album Bad as Me.
Much like fellow pop miscreant Joe Henry on his sparser but equally devilish Reverie, Waits embraces familiar pop shadows on the album (although Bad as Me's most ruinous tale has a political bent). Specifically, both artists are carnival barkers of sorts, presiding over songs that borrow generously from minstrel music and jazz, and from broken pop fragments to paint their bleak portraits.
The most striking aspect of Bad as Me is that it is one of the most approachable records that Waits has offered in ages, with wistful, autumnal reflections (Last Leaf, New Year's Eve) that echo the piano ballads that distinguished his career-defining Asylum albums of the '70s and early '80s.
But as usual, there is a lot going on. Harnessing a rogue's gallery of cohorts (the guitar front line alone is made up of veteran avant-garde sidekick Marc Ribot, Keith Richards of the Rolling Stone, and Los Lobos' David Hidalgo), Waits crisscrosses such unlikely rock spirits as Elvis Presley and Screaming Jay Hawkins in the groove-savvy hullabaloo Get Lost, and the album-opening Chicago plays out like a cartoon car chase through a Northwestern wasteland ("The seeds are planted here but they won't grow").
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Highlighting this consistently arresting baker's dozen of obtuse pop chronicles are the album's title song, a saga in which misery truly does love company ("You're the same kind of bad as me") and Hell Broke Loose, a devastating war requiem told through the blind eyes and deaf ears of a shattered vet ("I lost my buddy and I wept, wept; I came down from the meth, so I slept, slept; I had a good home, but I left, left"). Leave it to Waits to cap off his best album in more than a decade with an unromantic war song for a very unromantic war.
Henry's Reverie sounds positively muted compared to Bad as Me. Just place Hell Broke Loose next to the cabaret atmospherics of Reverie's After the War. But like Waits, Henry's love of pop minstrel abstractions extends to the lazy, elongated strides of his singing and the jazz and blues ambience that surrounds his songs.
He also is a more joyous serenader. But Henry also remains a wondrous outsider, whether he sings longingly amid a fabric of pump organ on The World and All I Know or surveys the ruins of Tomorrow Is October (curiously, with Ribot adding plaintive guitar). Like Bad as Me, Reverie is like the work of a post-modern sentimentalist who can't help viewing wreckage and hope with the same wary and weary world view.