Orphans, as Waits describes, is “a lot of songs that fell behind the stove while making dinner.” We’re glad that he decided to pick them up, because they amount to one of this year’s most impressive and poignant albums. While just a collection of rarities and unreleased songs, it’s as brilliantly unique as anything he's ever put out.
Taking cues from every influence you can detect in his style—raspy wailing blues, old crooning Sinatra standards, folk tales, spoken-word poetry, and experimental hybrid genres—Tom Waits has compiled a beautiful, epic, three-hour collection of songs to cover every emotion we know.
Orphans is divided into three discs—the first, Brawlers, is a smorgasbord of blues. Ranging from tunes that sound straight out of Elvis’ or Muddy Waters’ career, Waits wails at the mic, straining what little voice he has left while spanning generations of blues. Waits’ lyrics are unsurprisingly and deservingly the focal point of each song. He manages to give each track its own personality, and they all shine.
“The Ballad of Jackie and Judy” consists mostly of him crying, “Oh yeeeaaahhh,” contrasted by “Road to Peace,” his eerie summation of the horrors in the Middle East: “It was a tall, thin boy with a wispy moustache/ Disguised as an Orthodox Jew/ On a crowded bus in Jerusalem… With more retribution, and 17 dead/ Along the road to peace.” It’s these lyrics that allow Waits’ poetry to bear so much relevance, making it a more interesting assortment than his usual surrealistic descriptions.
Disc two is the most solemn of the three—it is the “melancholy” disc, Bawlers, where Waits takes a cue straight from Sinatra’s In The Wee Small Hours. Often accompanied exclusively by a sparse piano, trumpet, and bass, he puts a roster of emotions into words with his familiar tinge of dusty wisdom, reminiscing on resignation and faith. The tracks here are evocative of children’s lullabies and 50s standards; the first two, “Bend Down the Branches” and “You Can Never Hold Back Spring,” are among the best and they raise the bar early on for Bawlers, which turns out as much a triumph of pacing as of poetry.
Rounding up Orphans is his “experimental” disc, Bastards. Expounding on his tried-and-true caveman style, Waits adopts a sound closer to Leonard Cohen than anything else—he masters raspy-voiced poetry, talking through songs rather than singing them. Spliced in between are monologues, often amusing and always peculiar. In the final three minutes of the disc, Waits regales us with the anecdote “Missing My Son”—a consistently engaging, touching, and quintessentially Waits-styled monologue about a moment in the grocery store when an old woman approached him with the request to call her “Mom.”
Tom Waits is one of the most unique, passionate poets of our era, and aptly, Orphans is one of the most unique and passionate albums of this year. And while I could copy out the lyrics or use fancy adjectives to describe the album, nothing can capture the essence of his voice. He emits pure soul—there is no pretension, no cop-outs. It’s one of those rare instances when the music can be so good it hurts.