Given a title like Orphans, you’ve probably already got a good idea what Tom Waits’s new three-disc set sounds like. Yeah, it’s more of his rambling, shambling, junkman-poet-beating-on-the-engine-of-a-rusty-old-Ford approach, gathering together songs both new and old. And it works more than an expansive set like this really should, sounding very much like one cohesive statement, albeit it one with many a dark and dusty nook and cranny. Some of these songs—and where Waits is concerned, that term should be used very loosely, considering his predilection for bizarre and challenging soundscapes over typical structures—stand up alongside his best work (the howling ode to bad luck, “Rains on Me,” and a nightmarish reinvention of “Heigh Ho” from Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, come to mind here).
Each of the discs has its own evocative title—Brawlers, Bawlers and Bastards—so you can also be sure that Waits is dishing out at least three courses of his particular brand of tomfoolery. And, while each set has a predilection for a particular style, there is plenty of overlap, keeping the set from bogging down in repetitiveness. In amongst the stomping rumble of the 16 tunes on Brawlers, for example, is “Bottom of the World,” a tune with surprisingly beautiful music (which Waits balances out with a vocal that’s ragged even by his standards), and the oddball nature of Bastards is offset by the heavy blues groove of “Books of Moses.”
While it would be easy to turn a collection of this size into a vanity project full of songs that weren’t good enough for past albums, Waits avoids that pitfall by staying focused on the music and the relationships between tracks, creating a massive album that holds many wonders—and even more terrors—for those willing to venture inside this haunted old orphanage.