"Orphans" is the name of Tom Waits's sprawling new album, and it's a serious misnomer. It implies that these songs, 54 of them collected on three discs, are castoff B-sides or the unwanted runts that couldn't find a home on Waits's other recordings. It's just the opposite: This is some of the best and most vital work of Waits's long career as the craggy boogeyman of American music.
The album started with a simple conceit. Over the years, Waits had amassed songs that didn't seem to fit elsewhere or that appeared scattershot on soundtracks and in theater productions. The album, featuring 30 new recordings and a 94-page booklet, is divided into three discs with fitting titles: "Brawlers," "Bawlers," and "Bastards"; that's exactly what each one delivers.
By accident or design, "Orphans" plays out like a greatest-hits package, except without the hits. For anyone who never understood Waits's artistry or didn't know how to navigate his catalog, this is an ideal overview of his work. Nearly every song seems to reference one of Waits's previous albums, from the late-night piano-bar blues of "World Keeps Turning" (perfect for 1973's "Closing Time") to the brash blues stomp of "Lucinda" (an outtake from 2004's "Real Gone," perhaps?).
"Brawlers" is full of the juke-joint electric blues that have colored much of Waits's recent work, particularly "Real Gone." On "Bawlers," get out your hankies for tear-jerking ballads such as "You Can Never Hold Back Spring" and "Tell It to Me," which first debuted as a duet called "Louise" with Ramblin' Jack Elliott. "Bastards" is the most quixotic of the albums, a hodgepodge of hiss-ridden demos ("Home I'll Never Be"), covers (of songs by Daniel Johnston, Kurt Weill, the Ramones, and others), and creepy spoken-word narratives ("First Kiss") in search of a David Lynch film soundtrack.
Chances are, if there's a kind of song you wish Waits had recorded but never did, it's here: rockabilly ("Lie to Me"), country-gospel ("Lord I've Been Changed"), and even a pointed political diatribe. On the seven-minute "Road to Peace," Waits is uncharacteristically blatant in his criticism: "Now our president wants to be seen as a hero/ And he's hungry for re-election/ But Bush is reluctant to risk his future and the fear of his political failures/ So he plays chess at his desk/ And poses for the press/ Ten thousand miles from the road to peace."
James Reed can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.