A good friend of mine is as obsessed by Tom Waits as I am by Bob Dylan. Lord knows I’ve tried to understand Waits in the past. I’ve got some bootlegs and I’ve listened to Raindogs on numerous occasions and enjoyed it but not really been able to get it completely. Maybe it’s because of a lack of time, he’s one of those artists that deserves more than just a passing ear while you’re doing the washing up.
Some critics have described Orphans as a career retrospective. I can understand why they’ve reached this conclusion – what we have here is a 54 track collection of covers, outtakes, soundtrack songs and a few newly penned tunes. However, I like to look at it more as a sort of “beginners guide” to Tom Waits.
Each CD has a separate theme and focus. However, many of the songs are interchangeable and the three CDs come together to form a single package well.
Brawlers sees Waits raspy, drink tainted vocals applied to raucous blues numbers and barroom stomps. It also contains new song ‘Road for Peace’ which received much attention in the media. Written about the on-going and never-ending Israeli/Palestinian conflict it presents the conflict from both sides. Highly political and lyrically charged, it is a great addition to the Waits cannon and one that will immediately stand-out on first listen. ‘Fish in the Jailhouse’ is another fine number, the music although sparse at first slowly build and allows the listener to focus on Waits’ vocals and delivery. However, it is probably the weakest CD of the three present in the collection, but the one which beginners will probably appreciate the most
Bawlers, is a collection of ballads and twisted folk tunes, with love a key theme. However, it is far too simplistic to describe them as such – these have Tom Waits’ hallmark use of language and delivery stamped all over them. More than ballads, these are songs which display all the imagination and humour of Waits. While many would offer the old blues singers and Dylan as inspiration for Waits’ music, this collection clearly proves that writers and poets such as Bukowski or Kerouac are equally as important. Bawlers sees the themes of love and loss as fleeting affairs, bitter memories and sadness.
The opening lines of ‘The World Keeps Turning’ on Bawlers are perhaps best representative of what I am trying to explain, the sadness of such a line still hits me every time I listen to it
“On our anniversary,
There’ll be someone else where you used to be”
It doesn’t work as well on paper but you have to hear this to get the full force of what the song is saying. It is something so simple, yet at the same so eloquently put and meaningful.
Another stand-out track is ‘Never Let Go’ where the beauty of his poetry (yes, I’ve used the word “poetry”) is astounding.
“Well ring the bell backwards and bury the axe,
Fall down on your knees in the dirt,
I’m tied to the mast between water and wind,
Believe me, you’ll never get hurt,
Now the ring’s in the pawn shop,
The rain’s in the hole,
Down at the five points I stand,
I’ll lose everything, but I won’t let go of your hand”
‘The Fall of Troy’ is about the death of a young boy and the impact that this has on his family. A very literal song, it is a slow grower and one that hits harder and harder on every listen.
Bastards is the final CD of the set and contains more of his ‘experimental’ material. Here we have jazz influenced live performances, spoken word or near spoken word songs, and just plain weirdness that only Tom Waits can deliver.
He covers ‘Heigh Ho’ the dwarf song from Snow White. Yes you read that sentence correctly. ‘Army Ants’ sees Waits list a number of insects and sounds like a school presentation. Both of the above tunes should be completely awful but they are brilliant pieces of performance art. ‘Red Rum’ is a purely musical piece that uses the strangest of instruments that can’t really be made out through just listening to the tune. A brilliant musical interlude.
His spoken word material is perhaps the most interesting element to Bastards though, ‘Nirvana’ written by drunken poet Bukowski is a monotonous piece about the boredom of living in Los Angeles and the hum-drum of everyday life. ‘The Pontiac’ is about a father and son and their love of cars and is almost inane and pointless beyond belief, but I guess that’s the point. The final song is ‘Missing My Son’ and it is a story about a woman who, as you can probably gather, misses her son. Basically it is an extended spoken-word piece which is one big joke. The story is told in such a gripping manner that I immediately stopped what I was doing and leaned my head to the speakers, engrossed by the drama. Of course the joke was on me and it ends with Waits’ raspy laugh. A great way to finish the album and this compelling collection.
Analysing and writing a review of such a monumental CD was always going to be hard. I could have written pages and pages on individual songs alone. What this album has done though is provide me with an overview of Waits’ extensive career and as I have written this review, I have now realised that I have got the man. Orphans is a compelling collection where the only negative downside is that it makes you want to discover more of Waits’ lyrical genius. Good job the New Years sales are now on in record shops, so the pain won’t be so hard on your wallet.
Tom Waits is an amazing artist who can deliver lyrically beautiful, soulful and meaningful songs in a variety of unconventional ways. If you’re a fan then you’ve already got this album. If you’re not but have always been intrigued by the man, his music and why so many people are so obsessed with him, then Orphans: Brawlers, Bawlers and Bastards is possibly the best way to discover one of the most original songwriters in American musical history.