It’s kind of been a rough winter for house-cleaning box sets: The Doors have been the subject of their 349th career retrospective, Michael Jackson warranted an unconscionably designed compliation of “video singles”, each requiring its own separate trip off the couch, and someone has seen fit to give Sublime a full three discs of throwaways. Three discs! For the “What I Got” dude, a guy who, for the record, put out exactly three more albums than I did.
This demands some ground rules, people, and here they are: Sublime does not rank box set treatment. Remixes of “Blood on the Dance Floor” do not rank box set treatment. Tom Waits ranks box set treatment.
There are almost literally no words left to throw at Waits, other than to say the three-disc, 56-track Orphans is magnificence in creative packaging, one of his most skillful blends of beauty and horror ever, only one with the pleasant effect of being three times as long as usual. There is a dark truth in that a collection of one guy’s non-album stuff — albeit three decades’ worth of them — effortlessly outclasses most of a whole calendar year’s new music, but there you go. (Though it’s pitched as an outtakes set, Waits has re-recorded some old songs, written some new ones, and fleshed things out a la a real album).
For fans, at this point, writing appropriately gushy things about Waits is just piling on. But in case you’re newish, here’s a quick primer: Bawlers, disc two here, opens with “Bend Down the Branches”, a minute-long tuba-kissed weeper that first appeared on a kids’ music compliation. If you’ve heard him sing and the idea of that seems hilarious-verging-on-scary, such is the paradox of Waits, that a guy with a throat that seems to have been dragged through most of the western United States on the back of a wagon train can be responsible for such consistent, heartrending melody. No other songwriter could derive such fanfare and admiration for making you want to sit in a dark, empty shack staring at the moon until you die.
What makes the dark lullabies of Orphans so gripping is the sheer volume with which he apparently unleashes this stuff. Compiled from various stages of his career, with varying fidelity but weirdly without varying quality, Orphans is the singularly odd cutting-room comp that serves as an equally decent introduction to a career.
Part of that is due to the way Waits organizes, with idiosyncratic democracy, his orphans. Each disc has a style. If you’re not sure which disc is spinning at any given time, here’s a helpful cheat sheet:
1. The “Brawlers” rock.
2. The “Bawlers” mourn, with ever-terrifying skill. These are the ones with the lost women and faithless parents and engagement rings in pawn shops, that sort of thing. If you hear a bruising line like “You can send me to hell, but I’ll never let go of your hand,” it’s a Bawler.
3. “Bastards” are the ones where he sounds like he’s crying to red moon while beating on dried-out human bones with a lead pipe. If you hear the phrases, “The female praying mantis devours the male while they are mating. The male sometimes continues copulating even after the female has bitten off his head, and part of his upper torso,” you are listening to a Bastard.
If the concept seems too easy, it is. It’s also, I think, a joke, Waits’ style is as pleasingly familiar as it is surface-level scary, so he’s smirking as he puts all his super-creepy spoken word stuff in one place and dares you to enter. “I like my town with a little bit of poison,” he crawls on “Little Drop of Poison”, “Nobody knows they’re lining up to go insane.” This is, of course, crooned in a filterless voice over a jaunty Western pian-y riff, and a screaming ghost in the background.
But for all the comedic ghastliness in those drunk-poet tracks, there continues to be unfiltered, amazing beauty in the melodies he trickles out. Ever the master of the subtly destroying image, he implores In “If I Have to Go” for his love to tell all the others she’ll hold in her arms that he’ll be back; he leaves his jacket to keep her warm. It would be fascinating to learn what compelled Waits to omit stunners like “Shiny Things” and “If I Have to Go” off of anything. It’s enough to make one worry about his mental state, if, you know, one wasn’t kinda doing that already.
Highlights abound: the initially unrecognizable cover of “Sea of Love”, the roaring rocker “LowDown” (featuring his son Casey on drums), the finger-snappin’ “Walk Away”, the two Ramones covers.
With Waits the temptation exists to embarass him in an orgy of hilarious overwriting, but adding to the volumes of decorative adjectives lavished on this guy seems ridiculous. “There’s nothing for me in this world of strangers,” Waits croons at one point, but his world, one where accordions can sound absolutely horrifying, is considerably more inviting and rewarding.