Tom Waits Orphans: Brawlers, Bawlers and Bastards

Tom Waits Orphans: Brawlers, Bawlers and Bastards
Photo: Michael O'Brien
"Forgive me, baby, but I always take the long way home.” Because this is Tom Waits, said journey through three discs of the oddest and the soddest will mean the sky is always the colour of lead, the moon is always a coffee stain, and tilapia fish cakes and fried black swan are always on the menu. The only real surprise here is this 56-song collection’s consistent excellence, considering some of the filler that’s padded every album of his post-1999 comeback. Sure, he has his formulas, but underneath his signature arrangements — which continue to delight, 25 years after Swordfishtrombones and his marriage to Kathleen Brennan — are undeniably great songs that he can obviously spit out whenever he wants to. The most startling thing here is the somewhat new song "Road to Peace,” which marks the first time Waits has ever consciously written a political song set in the present, one that names names (including Ariel Sharon, which makes it at least a year old). Here, he dissects the ongoing Israeli crisis by focusing on one suicide bomber and the army’s retaliation. For a story that repeats itself every week, Waits gives it the gravitas it deserves, refusing to let the horrific details become blasé. Yet as with any blatantly topical song, the writing is somewhat clunky, redeemed by the Socratic conclusion: "If God is great/if God is good/why can’t he change the hearts of men?/Maybe God himself is lost and needs help/out on the road to peace.” The discs are divided in a rough thematic fashion. The Brawlers and the Bawlers are self-explanatory, but the Bastards disc is where we get the side of Waits that’s usually relegated to one or two tracks per album: the spoken word pieces and other detritus that’s usually too weird for fair-weather fans. There we find a hilarious tale of the bizarro babe that gave him his first kiss, a reading of a poignant Bukowski anecdote, the most depressing bedtime tale ever, and a hilarious piece about the more vicious behaviour of insects. These collected secrets confirm Waits’ status as the most consistent songwriter and performer of at least the last quarter century, casting a downright towering presence over the rest of his generation. "Through the wind, through the rain of a cold dark night — that’s where I’ll be.” We always know where he is, though how he leads us there is never a given. (Anti/Epitaph)