For about 30 years now, Waits has been honing his craft. Starting as a southern California lounge minstrel paying homage to the seamy side of Tinseltown’s dreams, he has grown over the years into a giant talent of American song. His work incorporates nearly every thread of American popular music, not just of the pop era’s last 50 years but back to the beginnings. Scots-Irish murder ballads, patriotic marches, parlor romances, gospel, backporch dances, juke-joint blues, field hollers, rockabilly, show tunes, musique concrete, honky-tonk country, psychedelic folk, beat poetry, lullabies, film scores and more find their way into his songbook. Shaken and tumbled and stirred up together, mixed and jumbled and cobbled back together into something breathtaking and new. And sometimes scary.
These days, the typical Waits album contains three basic kinds of works: blues-based stomps, shouted out in a voice that sounds like Sasquatch gargling gravel, backed by clattering and banging vocal-beatbox percussion; slower, quieter, usually piano-based songs of romantic longing or innocence lost or destroyed; and … well, a mulligan stew of other stuff — spoken word pieces, poetry, noise experiments and curious instrumentals.
For this set, those three types have each been given their own disc, subtitled Brawlers, Bawlers and Bastards. It totals 54 tracks, 30 of which are totally new, the rest of which originated on other projects and have never been on a Waits album as such — more than three hours of listening.
The vast majority were written by Waits and his wife and writing partner, Kathleen Brennan. But there are some choice covers of traditional material and works by some of Waits’ major influences: Leadbelly, Brecht-Weill, Jack Kerouac, Charles Bukowski. And some surprises, too.
“Kathleen and I wanted the record to be like emptying our pockets on the table after an evening of gambling, burglary, and cow tipping,” Waits says in the book that accompanies the release. (Did I mention his wickedly droll sense of humor?) “We wanted Orphans to be like a shortwave radio show where the past is sequenced with the future, consisting of things you find on the ground, in this world and no world, or maybe the next world. Whatever you imagine that to be.” (He’s also something of a surrealist.)
Tom Waits is one of those performers you either love completely or don’t get at all. His songs can be densely packed with words, names, characters, images and references. But the biggest obstacle for some is his voice. The thing is, Waits’ voice is his instrument, and it’s one of the most amazing voices in show business.
But if you can get past the screams, rumbles, shouts and moans (or if they don’t bother you in the first place), you’ll be richly rewarded by Tom Waits’ poetry, which is on dazzling display on Orphans. In nearly every song, there is at least one lyric that sets the world on its ear or stops your heart or makes you hit the repeat button. And his poetry is almost always masterfully matched with the music, both melody and beat. Sometimes, of course, it’s nearly all beat.
You wouldn’t think you’d find such lyrical nuggets on a disc titled Brawlers, but actually, this is where the best are to be unearthed. They show up almost immediately, on the second track, “Low Down,” a screaming slide-guitar roadhouse blues about his baby, who is “a big red flag in a mean bull pen” and “a cheap motel with a burnt-out sign.” In the next song, “2:19,” his baby is leaving on the titular train, and he huffs out the chorus like the locomotive leaving the station, “Hey! Hey! I don’t know what to do / Hey! Hey! I will remember you…” and as the train pulls away, he asks, “is that a raindrop in the corner of your eye / were you drying your nails or waving goodbye?”
Brawlers is not all blues stomps, though. “Lucinda” is a classic outlaw/sailor ballad from the point of view of a man about to be hanged. There’s the gospel of “Lord I’ve Been Changed” and “Walk Away,” whose melody somewhat echoes “Sixteen Tons.” “Jackie and Judie” takes Chuck Berry’s school-days rock and adds a ton of grit and grunge to it. “Buzz Fledderjohn” sounds like a field recording of an old Delta bluesman, complete with a dog barking in the background, but it’s a creepy tale of the kid whose yard you weren’t allowed to play in.
Also on this disc, Waits howls and stomps his way through Leadbelly’s “Ain’t Goin Down to the Well” and finds a dark heart in the old rock ‘n’ roll chestnut “Sea of Love.” The song that most grabbed me is “Bottom of the World,” a slow ballad told by a life-long rambler. For a change of pace, this one is accompanied only by guitar and mandolins and some bass, with no percussion, a real Celtic-influenced folk gem. It is fantastic in every sense. Where in his soul does a man find poetry like this? “Now God’s green hair is where I slept last / he balanced a diamond on a blade of grass. / And I woke me up with a cardinal bird / and when I wanna talk he hangs on every word.”
Aside from the opening rockabilly song “Lie to Me,” the only track on Brawlers that I’m not immediately taken with is Waits’ attempt at epic balladry, “The Road To Peace.” This song is literally ripped from today’s headlines and news stories, using actual incidents and names of Middle Eastern suicide bombers, Israeli and Palestinian soldiers and victims and at least one American soldier victim in Iraq. He delivers the sing-song melody in his upper register, which adds to the preachy, didactic effect. I agree with his sentiment, but the song’s very timeliness will soon render it an anachronism.
Toward the end of the Bawlers disc, Waits visits a similar theme as in “The Road To Peace,” but in his usual, more effective, oblique style. “The Fall of Troy is the sad ballad of an 18-year-old boy shot in a robbery, with lots of specific-sounding details about time and place. But instead of a series of factual incidents from which he attempts to draw a message, he draws on a single incident from which to illustrate a universal theme: you have to find your own way home.
Jazzy piano ballads predominate on Bawlers. The short opener “Bend Down the Branches” sounds like a secular hymn; “You Can Never Hold Back Spring” is an obvious single, a song that could come from just about any period in Waits’ career. “World Keeps Turning” piles on more sad, beautiful poetics to reiterate the lesson everybody knows, that illicit love will end and life will go on. “Never Let Go” is a stately, almost martial waltz about desperate, perhaps obsessive love. “If I Have to Go” is a jealous daddy’s death song. “The only thing I want that shines / is to be king there in your eyes / to be your only shiny thing,” he sings in the romantic “Shiny Things.”
But there’s plenty of variety on this disc, too. “Widow’s Grove” is a lovely waltzing murder ballad. “Little Drop of Poison” is a shambling klezmer tango played on piano with a little faint banjo. There’s steel guitar from Bobby Black on the acoustic country song “Tell It to Me” in which a guy confronts what he thought was his girl who has married someone else. “Fannin Street” is a tale of a man’s ruination after he didn’t heed the warnings to stay away from that area across the tracks, with fingerpicked guitar and bass accompanying the haunting melody. Oh, and the Sally Army march “Take Care of All My Children.”
Standouts among this excellent crop of songs include “Long Way Home,” a chunking Johnny Cash-like country cabaret song of a wastrel’s undependable promises of love.
“Money’s just something you throw off the back of a train / got a head full of lightning and a hat full of rain / and I know that I said I’d never do it again / I love you pretty baby but I always take the long way home.”
Then there’s “Down There by the Train,” a gutbucket gospel that answer’s Dylan’s “Slow Train Coming,” a particularly American type of hymn for misfits and losers. “There’s no eye for an eye, there’s no tooth for a tooth / I saw Judas Iscariot carrying John Wilkes Booth … down there where the train goes slow.” And there’s the beautiful and brief “Jayne’s Blue Wish,” a short sung verse accompanied only by a close-miked acoustic guitar, “Chimney smoke ties the roof to the sky … / life is a path lit only by the light of those I’ve loved.” Then a lovely trumpet comes in, clear as a bell, for a startling contrast against Tom’s weathered voice.
For cover songs, there Teddy Edwards’ “Little Man,” a sentimental jazzy piano ballad; a slow, adult version of Leadbelly’s “Goodnight Irene” with a dissonant, drunken-sounding back-alley chorus; Waits channeling Jimmy Durante doing a Hawaiian jazz version of “Young at Heart” that’s schmaltzy but not sickly; and a slowed-way-down take of the Ramones song “Danny Says” about the frustrations and tedium of life on the road. Just fingerpicked acoustic guitar, harmonium and bass make this one haunting and lovely. Another out-of-left-field choice that works very well.
How to describe this Bastards disc? It’s a grab bag of murder ballads, movie songs and spoken word pieces that showcases Waits’ interest in poetry and humor. He has a comic’s timing and a keen ear for offbeat Americana.
It starts with a song that could very well be a summary of his oeuvre, the Brecht-Weill “What Keeps Mankind Alive,” a gleeful dance of bitter irony and dissolution backed by a full band of horns, accordion, banjo, bass drum and bowed bass. A little later on, he takes the Disney dwarves song “Heigh Ho” and turns the verses that we’re not all that familar with into a dark meditation on existential despair. A little farther down this path we pick up “Two Sisters,” a traditional Appalachian ballad of sibling rivalry and murder with a bare fiddle accompaniment. “Poor Little Lamb” sounds like an old parlor ballad, with Waits accompanied by some kind of organ. “Altar Boy” is a darkly humorous cabaret song about a grownup former altar boy, intro’d and outro’d by a carillon of church bells. He turns to Daniel Johnston, the American songwriter currently all the rage on the indie-rock scene, for the howling tribal wail of “King Kong.” And “Dog Door,” backed by looped drum machine, seems to be about romantic obsession.
Most of the rest comprises spoken-word pieces, the best of which are “The Pontiac,” a monologue by a working-class guy reminiscing about all the cars he’s known and loved; “Children’s Story,” a post-apocalyptic bedtime tale guaranteed to give a kid existential nightmares; and “First Kiss,” a poem about a spooky, odd woman who is remembered fondly. In “Army Ants,” he reads from several reference books about the bizarre practices of insects, particularly effective in his creepy, gravelly voice. A noodling clarinet accompanies “Nirvana,” a Bukowski piece about a young man at a roadside cafe. And Waits reads a section of Keruac’s “On the Road” set to music as “Home I’ll Never Be,” revisiting and expanding it as a blues song a little later on. There are a couple of shaggy dog stories as “hidden” tracks at the end, one of which is a between-song monologue during a live performance in which he ruminates about a grisly type of dog treat.
Tom Waits has carved out a niche for himself as a very eccentric performer. But beneath (or perhaps inside) the weirdness, he has some truly profound things to say about life, love and the modern world. Orphans is a dazzling, monumental accomplishment.