At 57, Tom Waits is still looting the archives of American popular music for venerated images to mangle and corrupt—he remains our preeminent iconoclast. Orphans, his new three-disc set of rarities and new recordings, finds him barking, chugging, and yowling his way through pretty much the whole Waits spectrum, its Elvis-style shuffles, lo-fi piano ballads, garage-rock grinds, Tin Pan Alley standards, and blues shouts all as twisted and contorted as his singing face.
This is nightmare music—a blue-collar purgatory made of American mythology and populated by its grotesques. Drowsy murderers interpret tremulous love ballads, petty thieves howl and stomp out simmering spirituals, and ex–altar boys looking to screw “women who look like nuns” mill amid cherry-lipped angels with scapular wings covered in feathers and electrical tape. All of Tom’s familiar sonics appear herein, from lurching, industrial clang-and-bang to cemetery polka to boozy smut.
The melodies Waits uses here—stripped from parlor tunes and hymns—are timeless and emblematic, but the way his voice deliberately corrupts them, both entreating and rebuffing, always makes the gratifications they offer uncomfortable ones. “It’s a pattern of invitation and rejection,” Aidan Day once wrote about Dylan, “in which the audience—alienated from easy absorption—is forced to attend closely to the transactions between voice and words.” Whether he’s telling a story or even reading an encyclopedia entry about bugs (“Army Ants”), Waits— a moonlighting actor who’s always known that music is theater—remains amazingly conscious of what those transactions mean, and how they can shape his myths. In “The Pontiac,” one of several spoken-word recordings on the “Bastards” disc, Waits plays a man talking his son through the family’s automotive history. He speaks about body panels and showroom models as if they were first kisses, and as he hits the most delicious bits, the hypnotic rhythm of his growl sloooows and softens whimsically. The effect is mesmerizing, and a type of national mystique is evoked.
But the real magic lies in the friction between Waits and his music. Maybe it’s the moaning and shrieking—or the strange future sounds that tend to drift through his old-world America—but Waits doesn’t seem to occupy his songs as much as stalk them, huffing and puffing, growling through the keyholes, and, when all else fails, cooing gruffly to the lady of the house. Ultimately, he’s always somehow displaced, anachronistic. What defines his characters, by contrast, is how they’re all indelibly rooted to the conditions of their lives, to a specific time and place, even if it’s a bar stool or a prison cell. However desolate or damned, those lives seem to make a kind of narrative sense. Waits, orphaned by his own tunes, seems to envy them that.