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Everything about Tom Waits is a contradiction of one sort or another: He cuts an unknowable and even otherworldly figure, yet his songwriting can be tear-jerkingly humane. He's untethered to eras or trends, yet his sound and the characters he inhabits are distinctly American. And, for all the ways his image classifies him as a lone wolf, he's one of music's great collaborators, having spent the last three decades working closely with wife and songwriting partner Kathleen Brennan.
Waits, of course, is an expert at feeding the mystery surrounding his deeply weird but strangely accessible music; to interview the man is to be led into a catacomb of misdirection and non sequiturs. But on his 20th album Bad As Me, out Oct. 24, Waits and Brennan continue to craft songs marked by uncommon empathy. Waits' first all-new studio record in seven years, it toggles constantly between heartsick vulnerability and hell-bound defiance: He may attempt to wake the devil in the stomping title track, commiserating with a lover who's "the same kind of bad as me," but a few songs later, he's grimly mourning his status as "the last leaf on the tree" — a survivor, but a lonely one.
For Waits, vulnerability and defiance are two sides of the same coin anyway; just listen to the blisteringly ramshackle "Satisfied," in which satisfaction and death are practically interchangeable. He may exude fatalism in "Pay Me" — a punch-in-the-gut ballad in which he memorably sings, "All roads lead to the end of the world" — but his delivery is a carefully controlled mix of ruefulness and realism. For Waits, ugliness and beauty both find ways to persist against all opposition. But in the end, amid these 13 songs' furious clatter and gutter-level grime, beauty improbably wins out.
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