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Blues, ballads, and heart and soul

(Jesse Dylan)
October 25, 2011

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Right out of the gate, Tom Waits extends the best possible introduction to his buoyant new album: “All aboard!’’ he barks toward the end of the opening “Chicago.’’ That’s a good way to view “Bad as Me,’’ not to mention Waits’s entire career - as a careening freight train about to jump the rails and end up God knows where.

At 61, Waits has become a genre unto himself: the restless iconoclast you would find raising hell in a tavern on Saturday night and then in a church pew come Sunday morning. “Bad as Me’’ is a natural addition to his catalog, particularly among the albums he has put out since 1980, the year he released “Heartattack and Vine’’ and married Kathleen Brennan, his muse and co-writer. For every clanging junkyard blues and rockabilly riff on “Bad as Me,’’ there’s a handful of tender ballads that go straight to the heart.

His first album of new material since 2004’s “Real Gone,’’ it’s also one of Waits’s most balanced works in recent memory. He knows when to temper the chaos. The chain-gang stomp of “Hell Broke Luce’’ gives way to the slack country waltz of “New Year’s Eve,’’ whose chorus plays to the tune of “Auld Lang Syne.’’

Ricocheting, staccato saxophones give “Chicago’’ its chugging drive, but then Waits shifts gears on the shuffling blues lament “Talking at the Same Time.’’ On “Last Leaf,’’ with Keith Richards joining him on guitar and backing vocals, Waits ponders the tenacity of the last leaf on a tree: “The autumn took the rest / But they won’t take me.’’ (Out now) JAMES REED

ESSENTIAL “Chicago’’