At this stage of the game, any new Tom Waits record is an event. Listening through the music of his entire career is daunting, to say the least, but it's a journey no one else, with the possible exception of Bob Dylan, has taken before. If one listens to the official recordings, from 1973's Closing Time, featuring the songs of an itinerant Beat barroom singer (no lounges please), right on through to the frenetic mania of 2004's Real Gone, one becomes aware of not only the twists and turns of a songwriter wrestling and bellowing at and with his muse, but of a journeyman artist barely able to hold on to the lid of his creativity, let alone keep it on. True, there have been many stops along the way: in the seediest lounges (1977's Foreign Affairs, which could have been a twisted inspiration to novelist Phillip Kerr when he wrote the Berlin Noir trilogy); acid-drenched blues scree (1980's Heartattack and Vine); travelogues of the unseen and the unspeakable (1985's Rain Dogs); seething and murderous suburban nightmares (1987's Franks Wild Years); the frighteningly comic tales of plagues and carnivals (1993's Black Rider); the scrape, squeal, and hollowed-out metal crunch of urban junkyards and classically American paranoia (1999's Mule Variations); and through-the-mirror-darkly image nightmares and fairy tale variations (2002's Alice and Blood Money). All of it is contained in the man who takes delight in the bent, quarreling marriage of song and sound with dangerously comic imagery.
Orphans is the most unwieldy Tom Waits collection yet. Packaged in a Cibachrome-tinted box are three discs containing 56 songs total. It claims 30 new tunes, but a mere 14 can be found on other records -- six others have to be hunted for while the remainder have shown up in various incarnations. This crazy thing began as a collection of outtakes, rarities, soundtrack tunes, and compilation-only cuts -- some of which survive here in new form, including tracks from the Ramblin' Jack Elliot tribute, the Bridge benefit, and two Ramones covers, to name a few. In other words, the first conception was as a hodgepodge collection of attic material. Waits checked out the tune selection as it was and said something like "nah, bad idea; this would suck." So, he did what any self-respecting artist with a head full of ideas, two stomping, shuffling feet, and itchy fingers -- and time on his hands -- would do: he recorded new songs and re-recorded others, so the thing would have some kind of elasticity yet hold its rickety bone and far-reaching sources together by means of cheap glue, chewed gum, solder, and a visionary recording engineer named Karl Derfler.
The end result is this daunting triple disc divided by title and theme: disc one is "Brawlers," Waits' rock and blues record, evoking everyone from T. Rex and Johnny Burnette to Sonny Curtis and Howlin' Wolf. It's a grand thing, since he hasn't released one like this before -- the closest were Heartattack and Vine on one side and Mule Variations on the other. Travel, regret, murder, salvation, guttersnipe meditations on sorrow, and nefarious and broken-down innocent -- and nefarious -- amorous intentions are a few of the themes that run through these tunes like oil and sand. Disc two is "Bawlers," a collection of ballads, raw love songs, weepy wine tunes, wistful yet tentative hope -- in the form of floppy prayers -- and an under-the-table and wishing, bewildered, yet dead-on topical tome on the world's political situation. Disc three, entitled "Bastards," is even edgier; it's Waits hanging out there with his music and muse on the lunatic fringe of experimentation. Think Bone Machine's wilder moments and Waits' loopy standup comedy in the form of six spoken word pieces included here. Thank goodness he finally did this. If you've ever seen the man on a stage, you'll get why these are so important immediately.
"Brawler" digs deep into the American roots music that has obsessed Waits since the beginning of his long labyrinthine haul. There's the frenetic rockabilly swagger that probably makes Carl Perkins and Gene Vincent shake and shimmy in their graves. One of the movie tunes, a cover of "Sea of Love," recalls its place in the film for those who've seen it. If you haven't, it's a slanted, tarnished jewel freshly liberated from antiquity. The hobo ballad "Bottom of the World" recalls old country gospel, and "Lucinda" can only be described as a gallows dance tune. The slippery hoodoo blues "Road to Peace" is the season's most timely and topical political song.
"Bawlers" is the set's bridge, and it's easy to see why: it's the most accessible disc in the box. There are some of the movie tunes here, from flicks like Pollock, Big Bad Love, and Shrek 2. Other cuts, such as "Goodnight Irene," recall "Tom Traubert's Blues (Four Sheets to the Wind in Copenhagen)" from the Small Change album; the singing protagonist here is older and more desperate, almost suicidal. Resignation displaces hope; it's a long reach into the past and expresses the void of the present. The cover of the Ramones' "Danny Says" is completely reinvented; it's one of the loneliest, most sweetly desolate of Waits' many sides. It's not all darkness, however; there are gorgeous songs here too, such as "Never Let Go" and "You Can Never Hold Back Spring," where an indomitable human spirit reins and rings true.
Finally, it comes down to "Bastards." The eerie, strange, cabaret-in-a-carnival music that is Weill and Brecht's "What Keeps Mankind Alive" enlists banjos, accordion, tuba, and big bass drum as simply the means to let these twisted words out of the box. Thankfully the cover of "Books of Moses," originally by Skip Spence, is here, as is Daniel Johnston's "King Kong." Neither of these cuts resembles their original version, and Waits brings out the dark underbelly inherent in each. "Bedtime Story" is the first of the Waits monologues here. It is the repressed wish of every parent (with a sense of humor) to have the temerity to tell this kind of tale to their children when they retire. Others include a reading of Charles Bukowski's "Nirvana," the hilarious monologue "The Pontiac," and the live routine "Dog Door." Perhaps the most inviting cut here is the piano-and-horn ballad "Altar Boy," a postmodern saloon song that would make Bobby Short turn red with rage. This disc is the true mixed bag in the set: unruly, uneven, and full of feints and free-for-alls.
Ultimately, the epicenter of Orphans is Waits' voice. It's many expressions, nuances, bellows, barks, hollers, open wails, roughshod croons, and midnight whispers carry these songs and monologues to the listener with authority as an open invitation into his sound world, his view of tradition, and his manner of shaping that world as something not ephemeral, but as an extension of musical time itself. As a vocalist, Waits, like Bob Dylan, embodies the entire genealogical line of the blues, jazz, local barroom bards, and traveling minstrels in the very grain of his songs. That wily throat carries not only the songs he and his songwriting partner and wife, Kathleen Brennan, pen, but also the magnet for the sonic atmospheres that frame it. There is adventure, danger, and the sound of the previous, the forgotten, and the wished for in it. And it is that voice that links all three of these discs together and makes them partners. One cannot dismiss that even though some of these songs have appeared elsewhere, Orphans is a major work that goes beyond the origins of the material and drags everything past and present with sound and texture into a present to be presented as something utterly new, beyond anything he has previously issued. To paraphrase Ezra Pound in response to Allen Ginsberg's inquiry about what his poem "The Cantos" meant, these orphans speak for themselves.