By Rob van Alstyne
By Zach McCormick
By Emily Eveland
By Jack Spencer
By Michael Madden
By Reed Fischer
By Emily Weiss
By Emily Weiss
After years spent agonizing over the fact that my childhood activities (like the one where I'd paint black eyes and bloody lips on my face using my mother's makeup, puff on a rolled up Post-it, and trollop around in heels) were a bit more bent than your ordinary reindeer games, I stumbled across a recording of the old standby "Sea of Love," covered by someone named Tom Waits. The growling that emerged made me assume that scientists had finally recorded a singing gorilla. That song, and the many Waits numbers I consequently devoured, made me feel (for the first time) irrevocably known. I fell in love, found a language, knew that nothing would ever be the same. Armed with my tinny Walkman, I reveled with whores, peg-legs, hustlers, and the occasional midget, my nerves elevated to the outside of my skin. Oh, to be 18 and in love with The Black Rider! Suddenly the world was sad and beautiful, indeed.
I am unable to unpack my long history with Tom Waits's music enough to recall if that first blush revolved more around his exotic lyrical portraits or if it was the sheer bluster of the rattles and clangs that did me in. Either way, my cosmos changed profoundly once injected with his strange melodies and beauty and wooden moons that cry blood. Like falling in love (or becoming born again), discovering music that speaks to you truly makes everyone and everything else cease to exist. For me and a lot of people, Waits's music—the hound-dog howls of Small Change, the clattering ruckus of Bone Machine, the dreamy reveries of Frank's Wild Years—felt like love. Throughout the course of his career, he has created a singular and essential lexicon, tuning us in to feelings we otherwise didn't know we had (or perhaps otherwise didn't have). Amid clowns and barnyards and assorted wreckage, he revealed the unlikely fact of our souls.
But as days and years passed, the ambivalence crept in.
Yes, Waits's music continues to sound pretty, he's still a paragon of cool, and he keeps the faith like no one else. (I say this despite the news, which can only be described as unfortunate, of the impending Scarlett [Johansson, i.e. Esquire's Sexiest Woman Alive 2006] sings Tom Waits). However, I can't help but fuss over Waits's new three-album concept release, Orphans: Brawlers, Bawlers, and Bastards (30 new tracks plus nearly as many rarities). Its by-the-numbers nature puts up front paramount questions we've long averted, forcing us to wonder if truth ever really inhabited those counterfeit shiners and paper moons. But we also must consider that it might signify something more disconcerting. Maybe it's not Waits, but the world that's losing its imagination.
Orphans itself draws heavily from Waits's routine reservoir: Like all of his albums since Swordfishtrombones, it's chock full of anachronisms, faux funhouse clamor, twisted Americana, strange instrumentation, nostalgia, and a handful of spoken-word clunkers. There's beauty, too—enough of it to go around, like the sublimely exquisite You Can Never Hold Back Spring; the aching, stomping Rains on Me; and the cover of Leadbelly's Goodnight Irene that settles into your chest alongside your heart. But listening to Orphans is both satisfying and infuriating. Beyond an unsettling cover of Daniel Johnston's King Kong and a new melody or two, it delivers what we're accustomed to, and not much more.
Waits, Charles Bukowski (whose poem "Nirvana" is featured on Bastards), and their peers are stuck in a precarious place—when they use the language they know, the language they made lovely, they're espousing an increasingly moribund vernacular. Jazz saxophonist Albert Ayler summed up his career of complex, curious horn yelps by insisting, "If people don't like it now, they will." (He was kind of right, but not really.) In Waits's case, one fears that the complete inverse might be true: "If people do like it now, they won't."
If this decadence is more than a transient trifle (and these things usually are), we're invited to ask why. Is it sobriety? Age? Northern California? But such mundane explanations miss the point. It's startling (and to his credit) that Waits's peculiar brand of mawkish candor can even exist within a discourse that revolves around K-Fed and kitsch. Scarlett sings Tom today; maybe tomorrow DJ Girl Talk will offer a mash-up of J. Lo versus Pablo Neruda. Empty endeavors and pretentious attentions do nothing to sustain poetry.
Vanguards step into Waits's galoshes now and again, and I don't mean the skinny-tied guys who gig at coffee shops and swear they don't have an STD. The Hold Steady, the Mountain Goats, and the Twin Cities' very own Atmosphere consistently make beauty befall banality. None have yet realized a Raindogs, but here's hoping they do. The pursuit of beauty, whether through music or cinema, painting or poems, may seem a luxury from our current vantage point in the Quagmire of Terror. But it serves an essential purpose—it has the capacity to create common language and shared sensibility, crafting true culture. Poetic legacy offers our best hope against the deterioration of spirit. That's why it has been so hard, over the course of the last few albums, to embrace lesser Waits. Even when it's remarkably good, as in the case of Orphans, it's hard to accept. It's lonely. I hear the immense night, still more immense without him.