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Tom Waits: Bad as Me (ANTI–)

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Donning the mask of a fatalistic joker, Tom Waits gives 2011 its defining album, singing, stomping and wheezing in revolt against the bleak lows that mark this doomed age.

A deep study of any of the 13 songs on Bad as Me would serve the same purpose, with nearly the same result: This is the soundtrack to an occupied nation, encapsulating the fear, anger and defiance coursing through a people wronged again and again.

"All the news is bad, is there any other kind?" Waits sings in falsetto on "Talking at the Same Time," a swampy indictment of the dirty profiteers who've left America in tatters. "We bailed out all the millionaires—they got the fruit; we got the rind." It's a country drowning in the miserable wake of its own greed, watching helplessly as desperate chaos extends the hard times.

Dark, preposterous, incensed and confrontational, Bad as Me is mostly "brawlers" in the Waits parlance, but even the tender ballads are haunted by war, futility, autumnal decay and dying embers.

"Pay Me" is about how easy a man can become stuck—"To hold yourself up's not a crime here, you know"—and about how the only optimism for this time is to sing merrily as you sink.

Waits ends with "New Year's Eve," a hard-luck tale that's typical of both his previous work and the Great Recession, turning "auld lang syne" into the only hope he can muster: Even a shitty year must come to an end.

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