Review Summary: Tom Waits has released a surprisingly coherent collection of new and old songs, covers and originals. Orphans is divided into three discs of rocking blues songs (Brawlers), melancholic ballads (Bawlers), and wild experimentations (Bastards).
Tom Waits is widely considered a genius. While he hasn’t achieved any real mainstream recognition (his famous songs were mostly made famous by other people such as Rod Stewart
), he can still be considered immensely popular. He has a cult following like few other singer/songwriters, due to his uncompromising creativity and charming personality, which is why he can released a 3-album, 3-hours collection of songs and expect people to buy it. The songs are a strange mix of new and old originals, spoken-word pieces, movie tunes, standards, cover songs, and even a poem put to music. In spite of this, Orphans is quite a coherent collection.
An interesting thing about the album is the division of styles. Usually, Tom Waits albums pull you every which way; as he furiously growls about demons and hell in one track, on the next sings a beautiful lament to his broken heart. This inconsistency in style has been prevalent on most Tom Waits album, and few of his albums have a truly defining sound (Although Alice mostly contains ballads, Kommeniezuspadt, and a few others to a lesser degree, completely interrupts the flow.) His albums are often confusing in their inconsistent style. Orphans, however, offers a defining sound on each disc. Brawlers are the bluesy, rockier tracks, Bawlers are the ballads, and Bastards are the crazy, experimental songs he is so (in)famous for. The division brings to mind Nick Cave
’s Abattoir Blues/The Lyre of Orpheus which focused on his rock songs and ballads respectively.
This is of course to be taken loosely. A few songs could have fit on another disc, but the album titles describe pretty well what you’re in for. ‘Brawlers’ is, as previously mentioned, the straight-forward blues-tracks, subjected to Waits’ whisky-worn voice and unconventional percussion, including human beatboxing, something he began experimenting with on 2004’s “Real Gone”. This is mostly true, although a few stray pretty far from that narrow definition. The non-rhyming “Road to Peace” will no doubt stand out the very first time you listen to the album. Not just because it has great melody and instrumentation, which it does, but more because of the lyrical topic: It’s an unabashed anti-war song, addressing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Nothing is hidden in metaphors. Consider this:
“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 in the fear of his political failures
So he plays chess at his desk and poses for the press
10,000 miles from the road to peace”
It’s not exactly subtle. This is not a critique though. “Road to Peace” is a remarkable song in the truest sense of the word. It’s extremely poignant and it seems genuinely honest, avoiding the clichés usually plaguing such political topics. Waits sings with as much conviction as ever, and “Road to Peace” is definitely one of the most moving songs he has written. While it of his career is not the sole highlight of the first disc, nothing stands out to the same degree. Worth mentioning, however, is another single “Bottom of the World”, a song about a traveller, who finds himself lost “at the bottom of the world”. It’s a mellow song, Tom’s rather harsh vocals aside. Some might notice the reference to Blood Money’s “All the World is Green”, in which Tom Waits sings, “He’s balancing a diamond / On a blade of grass”
, a line which is repeated (although slightly altered) here.
This is not to say that the rockier tracks are not worthwhile. “Fish in the Jailhouse” is a furious, bluesy track, driven mainly by a harsh drum-beat. As the song progresses, the instrumentation builds up with a bluesy guitar and a saxophone. The sparse instrumentation directs the focus to Tom Waits’ singing, which recalls “Big Black Mariah” and “Sixteen Shells from a Thirty-Ought Six”.
“Bend down the Branches” immediately establishes the “Bawler” sound. It is a short, but beautiful ballad, serving as an introduction to the album. “Bawlers” is easily the most accessible of the three discs. It switches between heart-warming and heart-breaking ballads, reminiscing both early Tom Waits tunes and the darker sound of 2002’s Alice. The single from the album, “You Can Never Hold Back Spring”, is a gorgeous, optimistic ballad, “Never Let Go” a grandiose ode to love. Listen to Tom Waits proclaim, “You can send me to hell / But I’ll never let go of your hand”
. It's one of the album's best moments. “Little Man”, is a jazzy, barroom ballad (composed by Teddy Edwards). All of them are fantastic songs. Highlights are abundant, and it’s hard to pick a truly defining moment on “Bawlers” (Put a gun to my head and I’d probably say “Never Let Go”). The song writing is incredibly strong throughout the 20 songs, and Bawlers, though it is also the longest, is the most cohesive and solid of the three albums.
However, “Bastards” isn’t meant to be consistent. Spoken-word tracks are plentiful, and each song sounds different from the next, though Tom’s signature demonic growl is prevalent in most tracks on the album. The very first track “What Keeps Mankind Alive” isn’t even a Waits original, but remains one of the best songs the “bastard” side of Tom Waits has ever recorded. The songs sound like the wildest songs from Mule Variations and Bone Machine. A spoken-word piece, "Children's Story", is a twisted bed-time story about a child who's all alone in the world. Also worth noting is Tom’s reading of “Nirvana” the Bukowski poem. It’s a wonderful track and although that should mainly be attributed to Bukowski, Tom Waits’ expressive voice suits the poem perfectly. One of the wildest tracks on the album, “King Kong”, is driven by a human beat-box and a roar rivalling the King itself. No song uses Tom Waits’ beat-box experimentations better than this. Closing the album are two unlisted skits, showing off his offbeat sense of humour, ensuring that “Orphans” covers every aspect of his personality.
Although covers appear frequently on the three-disc collection, you wouldn’t notice if you hadn’t heard them before. Tom makes the songs his own, and nothing here really sounds out of place. He is one of the rare old artists who isn’t past his prime and continues to rival his best work with new releases. Few of his albums show the diversity of his song writing and vocals as well as this. “Orphans” is essential for Tom Waits fans, as perhaps his career’s best demonstration of his creative persona. 54-tracks might be a bit much for someone just beginning the journey through Waits’ catalogue, but Orphans should be one of the first stops along the way.