Tom Waits three disc collection Orphans closes, seemingly inevitably, with a shaggy dog story involving a can of tuna fish, a fake mother, a tussle in a parking lot, and the sound of Waits’ rusted, asthmatic laugh. The laugh of someone getting away with something big.
Orphans is an everything-and-the-kitchen-sink compilation (a designation particularly apt for an artist for whom the kitchen sink is both a promising narrative device, full of potential for cleansing and drowning, and a cheap source of percussion), with some obscure odds and sods (including Waits’ delightful contribution to the Shrek 2 OST) and a double album’s worth of new material. The tripartite typology works like a Waitsian Rorschach test: blurred, suggestive, and revealing. Orphans may not have something for everyone, but what’s missing says more about the listener than the record.
Of the three titled discs, Brawlers is the least surprising: Waits treads the familiar, blasted ground of paranoid barroom blues. It also may be, barring the discomfiting, lengthy Middle Eastern story-song “The Road to Peace,” one of the easiest Waits discs to listen to start-to-finish.
Some of Brawlers’s digestibility derives from its Mule Variations familiarity. “Walk Away” is a note-for-note reprise of “Get Behind the Mule,” with a classic Waitsian arrangement of double bass, clapped hands, and a choir of bass clarinets; “Bottom of the World” recalls the revivalist glory of “Come on Up to the House,” but in place of ol’ time redemption, Waits’ eye is firmly on earthly matters: “That fresh egg yeller is too damn rare, but the white part’s perfect for slicking down your hair.” “Putting on the Dog” is something like run-of-the-mill Waits: a samba scored by undead bluesmen posing as murderers in an illegal jazz bar.
The twenty-song streak of poison-sweet balladry and damaged folk on Bawlers knits together like a mending bone, full of fractures and old bruises. In the abstract, Waits’ lyrics appear hopelessly stereotyped, all one-eyed Jacks and crippled dwarf sailors from Bataan. But Waits also has an auteur’s eye for arresting detail—a moon the color of a coffee stain, a feather on an unmade bed—rendered in hyperkinetic, hallucinatory phrasing, rivaling Sinatra’s in sheer energy and attack.
But of course, Waits keeps the most deformed, most depraved of his Orphans for the Bastards disc, a mess of spoken word interludes, cruel jokes, and half-baked sonic experiments. Some of this stuff seems too damn odd and obscure even for Waits; “Army Ants” is a lecture on the macabre habits of insects that closes with a homework assignment straight out of a B-grade horror. Waits’ twisted, opaque rhythm fetish, which requires beating sound out of every element of his environment, has stumbled teasingly close to trip-hop’s low-lit electronic maze, but “Dog Door” is his first bona fide contribution to the genre—Waits’ Temptation falsetto grapples with a slick electronic creak-profundo that would make del Naja jealous.
The grapeshot scatter of the Bastards songs illuminates the crannies of Waits’ mind like a flintlock’s flash: the morbid vision that sees the sun as a wilted sunflower and the earth an overturned pisspot; the soapbox preacher’s delusional, devotional fervor both exalting and condemning mankind’s survival by beastly acts.
Orphans’s three discs pose a phylogeny of Waitsian beasts, but the distinctions will not hold, and not only because several songs belong on multiple discs (“The Road to Peace,” an eye-for-an-eye parable of the Middle East, which turns Arabic and Hebrew names both into mournful scat-singing, is obviously more of a Bastard than a Brawler). Waits’ brimstone evangelists, Arbusian freaks, and hungover Casablancan Sams will not hold their shape; they are continually becoming each other, bleeding into one another, just as Waits bleeds into them all.