Arriving seven years after Real Gone, Bad As Me busts out of the gate with the churning horns of “Chicago.” But with the lagging tabla beat of the next track, “Raised Right Men,” Waits steps on the brakes, and he more or less keeps his foot down for the rest of the album. The word “relaxed” is nowhere in Waits’s lexicon, but there’s an unhurried ease to songs like “Talking at the Same Time” and “Back in the Crowd.” Waits sings away from the beat, as if even his rhythm section can’t set his pace. “Last Leaf” confronts mortality with fleeting defiance, and “New Year’s Eve” is a mandolin-tinged waltz, not a time signature that gets much play in his repertoire.
That’s not to say Waits has mellowed, exactly. “Hell Broke Luce” extends his interest in the lives of soldiers, with baritone sax so low it sounds like the rumble of mortars and a little simulated machine-gun fire for extra PTSD. “Satisfied” ponders death as a release from the body — “Lay my vertebrae out like dice/ Let my skull be a home for the mice” — but not before its needs are fully met. He even invokes the patron saints of rock ‘n’ roll dissatisfaction: “Mr. Jagger, Mr. Richards/ I will scratch where I been itchin’.” It is perhaps not coincidental that Richards also plays on the song.
Waits scratches plenty of itches on Bad As Me, no two songs are alike, although most draw on templates he’s laid down over his long and varied career. The album never quite settles on a mood for long enough to cast the kind of sustained spell as Bone Machine or Small Change do, but with so much time between recordings, it’s not surprising Waits feels the itch to dance with as many partners as he can.