Deep into Tom Waits' three-disc, odds-and-ends collection Orphans, there's a spoken-word adaptation of a Charles Bukowski poem about a young man on a bus trip who stops off in a cafe where the people are warm and the food is "particularly good… and the coffee." So good, in fact, that he wants to stay there. But he doesn't. The track is called "Nirvana," and it's fitting that Waits would choose a vision of paradise made up of humble stuff; it's just as fitting that he wouldn't be allowed to stick around. Borrowing some phrases from his wife and songwriting partner Kathleen Brennan, Waits has lamented that his music can be reduced to two categories: grim reapers and grand weepers. That isn't quite fair, but anyone wanting to reduce it to one grand theme could do worse than "transience." Nothing stays put for long in a Tom Waits song, whether it's driven away by violence and heartache, or driven toward the promise of a better tomorrow.
Waits doesn't stay put for long, either. The songs here—soundtrack contributions, compilation rarities, and 30 never-before-heard, mostly new tracks—date back to the '80s and encompass a range of experimental styles. But for a collection of leftovers gathered from hither and yon, they hang together remarkably well. What's more, many of them rank among Waits' best output. Waits may call them orphans, but another artist would call this a career.
"Fannin Street" turns a spot in Houston into Waits' own House Of The Rising Sun, a place from which innocence can never escape. "World Keeps Turning" spins an expression of loss and doubt around a truism. But it isn't all sadness under the sun here. "Lord I've Been Changed" and "Down There By The Train" (a song written for Johnny Cash) hold out the possibility of redemption, while "You Can Never Hold Back Spring," composed for a Roberto Benigni anti-Iraq War film yet to see release here, finds a hopeful flipside to all that flux. Those that the world doesn't crush keep turning with it.