A Faustian bargain is a simple procedure. You pledge your soul and the devil gives you whatever you want in return. But Tom Waits was too clever for the devil, and he flipped it on him. Tom Waits took the devil’s soul, and, in return, the devil will never allow Tom Waits to die. When Waits asks “What Keeps Mankind Alive?” on the opening track to the third CD of his triple-album monolith of 2006, he asks because he’s seen generations come and go and he can’t believe he’s still here. Neither can we. Remember that there’s no precedent for the work that Waits does. Rock & roll is the newest art form, aside from, I don’t know, web design. It hasn’t been around long enough that we know—or really understand—what a career artist in rock & roll looks like. Waits is the first. His contemporaries—Dylan, Costello, the Rolling Stones—have jettisoned their own voices for the voices of those who came before them. Waits spends the entirety of Orphans fleshing out his own voice, and—though it seems incongruous to call his artistic voice “singular,” since even he divides his psyche into three distinct parts—there’s nothing else like him. “Two Sisters” rests on a spare, broken-sounding violin. You can hear Waits’ lips smack as he gnaws through the lyrics. “Danny Says” turns a Ramones song into a mournful ballad. “Puttin’ On the Dog” finds Waits in rumba form, tapping on glass bottle and doing the slow twist. “Missing My Son” isn’t a song at all—it’s Waits telling (inventing?) the story of a woman in a grocery store telling him he reminds her of his son. Any fan will have a decent idea of what they’ll find on Orphans, but that’s hardly the point. This is Waits digging into the corners of his art form and expanding the size of his workroom by doing so. Each song comes from its own idea, and three CDs are far too little for a man with a million ideas.
-Marty Brown, 2006
We’re in a new era of rock artists. You should listen to Bob Dylan’s Modern Times, an album that’s good and good for you, but don’t get too comfortable, because Tommy’s waiting.