Tom Waits: A Desperate Voice For Desperate Times

Oct 26, 2011
Originally published on October 26, 2011 5:14 pm

Tom Waits generally sings like a psychotic carnival barker or a drunken lounge crooner. And I really mean that as a compliment.

It's not everyone's cup of tea, that voice. Pushed to extremes like the characters in his songs, his voice is an exaggeration full of truth. He's a singer of blues sentiment like Screamin' Jay Hawkins or Howlin' Wolf or Radiohead's Thom Yorke. His latest album is called Bad As Me, and the songs on it sound truer than ever — partly because Waits' songwriting and arranging are still extremely potent, and partly because his thematic desperation fits this particular moment in history like a ragged glove.

There's a line in one song about bailing out millionaires, and plenty of lyrics about money, jobs and the lack thereof. But Waits' music draws on the sweep of American history, early rock 'n' roll, old Mexican ballads and vaudeville-era pop, and you realize that these themes are depressingly eternal. Waits also sings about the power of love; about Eisenhower, Elvis and Wolfman Jack; about unlucky bodies piled up at the morgue; and, in a chilling song called "Hell Broke Luce," about a damaged soldier furiously trying to comprehend what he's lost, and the reasons why.

At this point, Waits seems to be like Woody Allen: so respected by his peers that truly legendary artists come out for his projects. Keith Richards of The Rolling Stones is featured in "Hell Broke Luce," along with Marc Ribot, an old Waits crony who might be America's greatest session guitarist at the moment. But Waits is an auteur just like Allen, and all the players ultimately serve his vision. Waits is an old pro singing slightly freakish songs — which, after a couple of listens, reveal themselves as not so freakish at all. Just human.

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MICHELE NORRIS, HOST:

The gravelly-voiced Tom Waits has made a career singing about characters who were down on their luck. His new album, "Bad As Me," continues that tradition. And according to our critic Will Hermes, it's especially resonant given the current state of the nation.

WILL HERMES, BYLINE: Tom Waits generally sings like a psychotic carnival barker or a drunken lounge crooner, and I mean that as a compliment.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BAD AS ME")

HERMES: It's not everyone's cup of tea, that voice. Pushed to extreme like the characters in his songs, his voice is an exaggeration full of truth. A blues singer like Screamin' Jay Hawkins or Howlin' Wolf or Radiohead's Thom Yorke. And the songs on "Bad As Me" sound truer than ever to me, partly because Waits' songwriting and arranging are still extremely potent and partly because his thematic desperation fits this particular moment in history like a ragged glove.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TALKING AT THE SAME TIME")

HERMES: Tom Waits has a line in one song about bailing out millionaires and plenty of lyrics about money and jobs and the lack thereof. But his music draws on the sweep of American history, early rock and roll, old Mexican ballads, Vaudeville-era pop. And you realize that these themes are depressingly eternal.

Waits also sings about the power of love, about Eisenhower and Elvis and Wolf Man Jack, about unlucky bodies piled up at the morgue. And on a chilling song called "Hell Broke Luce," about a damaged soldier furiously trying to comprehend all he's lost and the reasons why.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HELL BROKE LUCE")

HERMES: At this point, Tom Wait seems to be like Woody Allen, so respected by his peers that the best of the best come out for his projects. That was Keith Richards of the Stones on that last song, along with Marc Ribot, an old Waits crony who might, at this moment, be America's greatest session guitarist.

But Waits is also an auteur like Allen and all the players ultimately serve his vision. Here, Waits is an old pro singing slightly freakish songs which, after a couple of listens, reveal themselves as not so freakish at all, just very human.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PAY ME")

NORRIS: Our reviewer is Will Hermes. The new album from Tom Waits is called "Bad As Me," and you can listen to it at NPRmusic.org.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PAY ME") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.