Tom Waits has well-nigh perfected the art of writing a certain kind of song. It’s the song that sounds intimately personal when sung, as if emanating from the most brutal and delicate recesses of the soul, and yet which simultaneously has absolutely nothing to do with Tom Waits himself. When Waits bends over the microphone and wails, “I’m lost at the bottom of the world,” he’s not baring his own heart so much as slipping into costume and borrowing the tongue and windpipe of another character from another world.
After more than three decades of making records, Waits’s dizzying capacity to cultivate and inhabit alternative personas has not waned. The particular lyrics above come from the refrain of “Bottom of the World,” just one of the dozens of masterpieces that populate his newest album, “Orphans.” Waits has always been gifted at breathing life into nearly any material he touches, but these songs possess entire lives unto themselves, even beyond Waits’s distinctive and evocative treatments. Each song exists in its own little universe, exuding its own attitude and proffering its own nuggets of wisdom along with a wink, a tear or a curl of the lip.
Checking in with 54 songs, “Orphans” carries plenty of luggage. Not every song is entirely new: Only 30 tracks are making their first appearance on disc, while the remainders are culled from a variety of sources, including other people’s records (such as The Ramones’ “Danny Says” and Kurt Weill’s “What Keeps Mankind Alive,” co-written with Bertolt Brecht). But even covers receive the requisite imprint of Waits’s signature schizophrenic style, as a sublimely raucous rendition of Leadbelly’s “Good Night Irene” demonstrates.
Most interesting, however, is the manner in which Waits has organized the material, splitting the songs into three discs entitled “Brawlers,” “Bawlers” and “Bastards,” respectively. The anthropomorphism proves to be startlingly accurate. “Brawlers” showcases a collection of mean, no-nonsense numbers replete with blues riffs and primal grooves, and it features a veritable parade of the strange and twisted personalities that have set Waits’s career apart throughout the decades: fictional characters like Little Son Jackson, Nimrod Cain, Buzz Fledderjohn and the poor, drunken wretch who can’t go anywhere without getting soaked. Old blues pros like Charlie Musselwhite and John Hammond, Jr., lend a hand with their consummate musicianship, helping to create a top-rate backdrop for Waits’s menacing growl and variegated lyrics.
The one very sour note of the album’s first disc is the seven-minute polemic “Road To Peace,” a song no doubt intended to be a profound and relevant insight into contemporary politics, but which instead ends up as tendentious and simpleminded as it is banal. It is perhaps telling that there’s hardly a single rhyme throughout the entire diatribe, and lines like “But he is reluctant to risk his / Future with the fear of his political failure” are positively dead on arrival. The baffling inclusion of this bloated track threatens to spoil the album’s atmosphere of freedom and whimsy.
Luckily, “Bawlers” soon redeems such faults with its finely tuned balladry. Situated most often at the piano, Waits pounds out a score of haunting and bittersweet melodies that convey an austere and penetrating sense of humanity. Avid followers are probably already familiar with the tune and lyrics to the divine “Fannin Street,” but the true gem of the second disc is “Down There By The Train,” a truly memorable composition that emerges as wounded and frail as any number Waits has ever recorded.
“Bastards,” finally, gives room for Waits’s most bizarre and mischievous sonic incarnations. This final disc is where casual fans might part ways with more diehard Waits devotees. But even among the most cryptic and macabre material, listeners of any stripe will be able to find playful glints of genius. Whatever the reason, listening to Waits expound upon the predatory behaviors of insects in the spoken-word deadpan of “Army Ants” is as delightful as it is puzzling. “Nirvana” features an equally gratifying, deeply tender reading of a Charles Bukowski poem. The rest of “Bastards” is home to Waits’s usual gamut of junkyard rhythms and sinister rumblings, each of which has its particular flavors and charms.
Permeating all three discs on “Orphans” is Waits’s impeccable sense of the American musical and linguistic vernacular, coupled as always with an aura of manic spontaneity. If Dylan offers us the occasional spoonful of the Old, Weird America, then Waits sounds as if he’s lying face down in the stuff, delivering lines that rattle and wail from the primordial echo chamber of a nation. Wait’s lines from “Rains On Me,” shouted over a lazy blues boogie, sound as if they have existed since the dawn of time: “This is how the world will be / Everywhere I go it rains on me / Forty monkeys drowning in a boiling sea / Everywhere I go it rains on me.” All that Waits feeds us is American, through and through: the rambunctious abandon, the harsh turns of fate and the lyrical sense of self making its own way through struggles and triumphs.