Brawlers, Bawlers and Bastards

Tom Waits’ catalog of music reads like a rap sheet of the bizarre and broken-hearted; the sheer volume of leering barflies, deadly hot-blooded dames, and bodies abandoned in the middle of the woods are matched only by the quantity of liquor downed, sorrows never forgotten and sinister, supernatural menace.

The fifty-seven year old songwriter and performer is one of the rarest beasts in the world of music — more than just a storyteller, Waits creates cohesive, alluring worlds complete unto themselves. Maps could be drawn of the atmospheric American cities and strange, foreign ports where Waits’ crafty, raw bellow of a voice paints sympathetic epics. Worn-out phone directories could be filled with the proud, mad and sad residents of his world. If just for the limitless imagination and universal expanse of his difficult-to-define body of work, as a writer of stories, Waits has as much in common with J.R.R. Tolkein and Robert E. Howard as he does Raymond Chandler and John Steinbeck.

Luckily, despite defying definition, Waits’ music can be categorized. The three-disc set Orphans: Brawlers, Bawlers and Bastards, released late November 2006, is a handy guidebook to Waits’ grim and sanguine world, as appealing and deadly as a poison apple.

Divided into three thematically-linked discs, Orphans combines an impressive collection of thirty new songs with another twenty-four previously recorded as B-Sides, collaborative projects, throwaways and demo tracks. By no means a career retrospective, Orphans is a summary of Tom Waits as the artist has chosen to fashion himself during the period beginning with the 1992 release of Bone Machine.

The Brawlers CD begins the collection with “Lie to Me,” a spring-heeled whirlwind of a love song about a failed affair, spotlighting Waits’ joyful facetiousness with repeated lyrical metaphor and a musical track like a rockabilly hand grenade. “Fish in the Jailhouse” is no less delightful a train-wreck, with horns and sirens running rampant over a gleeful song about a jailbreak. The Ramones-inspired “The Return of Jackie and Judy” shares company with Waits’ acclaimed, free-form “Road to Peace,” with equally rafter-quivering soul- and blues-inspired pieces like “Lord I Been Changed” and “Lucinda” — the latter of which showcases Waits’ recently acquired penchant for laying a vocal beat box track behind his lyrics.

As if catching its breath, the collection follows with Bawlers, where the theme shifts to lamentable souls in every stage of loss and desolation. The dizzying “World Keeps Turning” and ominously cheerful “Little Drop of Poison” share the stage with a rendition of “Goodnight Irene” as performed by a heavenly chorus of bar-dwelling angels. The voice of Waits as the speaker in these songs tends towards the terminal, where every song is saying goodbye in some fashion, such as the fatalist “Fall of Troy” and funereal “Take Care of All of My Children” and the highly metaphoric “Down There by the Train,” originally scripted for and performed by Johnny Cash on the American Recordings album.

Bastards makes up the final third of the collection, inserting Waits’ trademark spoken word pieces (thankfully including Waits’ rarely-heard casually-spoken love poem to the family car, “The Pontiac,” and the delightful shaggy dog story “Missing My Son”) with a motley assortment of loose tracks. Waits’ two renditions of a song penned by Jack Keruoac (“Home I’ll Never Be” and “On the Road,” the latter performed with occasional collaborators Primus) find a cozy fit with Waits’ performances of the Charles Bukowski fragment “Nirvana” and Bertolt Brecht’s “What Keeps Mankind Alive?” Envisioned in the trilogy as the songs and tracks which otherwise didn’t fit the previous two themes, “Bastards” may represent the single disc most resembling an actual Tom Waits album, where eccentricity, erudition and eclecticism rule the roost.

Thoroughly listenable, overwhelmingly delightful and satisfyingly rich both in content and volume, Orphans is nonetheless not perfect; there is, of course, the old chestnut that any collection of B-Sides and rarities is bound to prove by example why some songs end up as B-Sides and rarities. Additionally, with the new songs scattered among the previously recorded tracks, the album only approaches some sense of coherence as a project through previous familiarity and after repeated listening.

It may have been wiser to separate the old and new pieces into separate discs, or possibly even separate projects, although the scope of Orphans lends it profundity and power. Its strict categorical striation, however, may be its weakest point; Waits’ music, typically heavy in content and implication, spares itself an unbearable pretension by its ability to defuse itself.

Waits’ previous albums were expertly assembled mélanges of drama, dire fate, grim humor and joyous Tin Pan Alley hootenannies. Orphans, by taking the spoken word segments — which historically reside in the middle of Waits’ albums, hanging in the center of their ribcages — and segregating them on the last disc, and by dividing the foot-stompers from the tear-jerkers makes Orphans an album set which begs to be ripped and played on random selection.

As an introduction to the artist’s work, it would require a steel-hearted perseverance on the part of any new listener to approach the album; this is unforgiving stuff for the newcomer. Production quality varies from track to track, the subject material is so widely varied as to avoid any touchstone for a novice, and generally Waits’ music is an intimidating hurdle to the uninitiated.

For the devoted fan, however — for whom the album was assembled in the first place — Orphans is possibly the single most essential guidebook to Waits’ strange and sublime world. As part of his overall ouvre, it comprises a volume of short stories, letters and experimental writing which reveal the vital process behind the polished product of his complete studio albums, making Orphans a collection comfortably at home in the atlas of Waits’ long storytelling, world-building career.