Nobody does grizzled and world-weary quite like Tom Waits, and coming off 2004's incredible Real Gone, the mammoth three-disc collection Orphans is yet more proof of his bizarre genius. Even putting aside the abundance of great music it contains, it is, if nothing else, a fitting tribute to Waits's persistently uncommercial, marketing-be-damned approach to his music. Comprised of a whopping 54 songs (both Waits originals and covers) and clocking in at about three hours, Orphans is vintage Waits from beginning to end-unvarnished, unconventional, and uncompromising. Given the enormous amount of variety to be found here, everyone's going to have their personal favorites, but whichever tracks one prefers there's no denying that Orphans makes the perfect testament to Waits's endless creativity, stinging wit and gritty, PhD-in-life sensibility.
Waits has long been a a man of many personas-demented carnival barker, old testament prophet, Jesus freak, depression-era bluesman-and even more than his more traditional albums Orphans shows off his chameleonic nature to the fullest extent. With its ample available space, Orphans allows Waits to induldge in genre exercises ranging from rockabilly (Lie To Me); to baroque pop (Little Drop of Poison); to swamp blues (Buzz Fledderjohn); to gospel (Lord I've been changed) without ever sounding like just an imitator of his varied influences. That said, Waits is still at his best when he dwells in a musical territory all his own, be it noisy, free-form experimentation or more reflective, sparsely instrumented balladry.
Each disc brings with its own unique feel, with the first one feeling the most like a proper Waits album in the vein of such all-encompassing classics as Rain Dogs and Bone Machine. Waits gets his classic-rock fix taken are of early with the scorching Low Down, whose big, brash guitar riffs wouldn't sound out of place in the '60's. The clamorous percussion and dizzying time signatures of Fish in the Jailhouse should please fans of Waits's more eccentric side, or just those like this writer who crave something abrasive and weird. Providing a sharp contrast to these tunes, but still very much in line with Waits's overall approach, are the downcast resignation of the bluesy, guitar-driven Road to Piece (a seven-minute examination of the conflict in Israel) and the closing lament of Rains on Me.
The ballad-heavy second disc, while occasionally a tad forgettable, is still home to some of the most brilliant material of Waits's career. The triumphant Take Care of All of My Children is driven by a stirring, martial drum beat, while the following Down There by the Train manages to expertly combine sadness, regret, and hope through Waits's singularly poetic lyrical imagery ("There's no eye for an eye/There's no tooth for a tooth/I saw Judas Iscariot carryin' John Wilkes Booth"-brilliant). In somewhat of a curveball for Waits, Never Let Go is inspiring and poignant in its straightforward message of devotion. There's also a great, booze-sodden lament in Goodnight Irene, which finds Waits's nicotine-stained voice at its most raw and unhinged.
The third disc is a nod to every side of the schizophrenic last two decades of Waits's career, with unstructured noise explorations (the mutant jazz-blues-rock workout Heigh Ho is hard-edged and ominous even for Waits) to a slew of spoken-word pieces to some more tender ballads. Waits starts off the disc by breaking out his classic rasp on the delightfully malevolent What Keeps Mankind Alive, and backs himself up with some inspired vocal beat-boxing on the Spidey's Wild Ride and King Kong. The latter track is especially interesting, with Waits's pained wail augmented by some ear-piercing guitar squeals and a subterranean bass line as he declaims the tragic story of, well, King Kong, with all the gravity of a character delivering the closing monologue of a Shakespearean tragedy.