There might be no better voice than that of Tom Waits to mutter, with the taste of impending defeat ripe on his tongue, “if you don’t want these arms to hold you / if you don’t want these lips to kiss you / if you found someone new / put me back in the crowd.” With so many redeeming elements in his arsenal, Waits’ richest talent is his ability to perfectly match raw, true emotion with his words. A long history of pop ballads have conditioned us to accept a strange blueprint of pretty, where if a singer hits just the right octave or carries a note for just the right amount of time, the song suddenly gains merit. We sometimes mistake a difficult-to-reach note as a glimmer of emotion. But the very best love songs aren’t talent shows. “Back in the Crowd,” Waits’ latest brilliant display of balladry, is only further proof.
Waits’ newest single has the battered 61-year-old soul laying out what amounts to an ultimatum: either we’re together or we’re not, his lyrics suggest, but if we’re not, then I need to take my heart and go. It’s a poignant message that’s been illustrated a million times before, but perhaps never as believably as this. The soft Latin guitar strumming that backs the song seem almost there as a distraction, as if Waits wanted to come right out and say these things but thought that maybe, just maybe, by applying some music it might delay the inevitable. He’s terrified of the answer that awaits him but he’s reached the point where he can’t go on living in limbo, and his voice accentuates it all amazingly.
As great as his kooky, experimental side may be, Waits is an artist at his best in these softer, more intimate moments. With his voice crackling and bruised, he’s able to be a much cleaner conduit for biting emotions than any big-voiced balladeer. “Back in the Crowd” is yet another example of this unparalleled natural artistry.