By: Eric Greenwood
In his three decades of making music Tom Waits has morphed from lonely crooner to suspicious barfly to sideshow freak and back again. His voice has just as many personalities, but it always sounds like he’s gargling gravel. It’s a strange anomaly- the worse shape his voice is in the better it suits his characters. Mule Variations is Waits’ first new record in six years since The Black Rider in 1993. He ended his fifteen-year relationship with Island Records with a collection of his greatest (of the Island years) last year, and he signed with the punk label, Epitaph. An odd pairing to say the least, but Waits’ career has not exactly been predictable.
Mule Variations is the first Tom Waits record to make a concerted effort to tip its hat to all of Waits’ schizophrenic styles from the avant guard clanks and scronks of Swordfishtrombones to the more commercial songwriting of Rain Dogs and even on to the apocalyptic, death obsessed Bone Machine. It’s always a scary situation when an artist has enough time between records to be able to see his own work in context. Mule Variations is contrived in that sense, but it’s a good contrivance. Waits knows how we perceive him and knows how to keep us entertained without shallowly jumping into any embarrassing territories.
“Big In Japan” starts Mule Variations off with a bang as Waits chugs along to a machine-like loop that sounds like a derailing train. It’s as aggressive as “Sixteen Shells From A Thirty Ought Six” and as effective as any of his openers to date. His feigned naivete mixes with a self-deprecating sense of humor: “heh ho they love the way I do it/heh ho there’s really nothing to it.” Waits is a showman at heart. He lures you into this bizarre world of mules and jezebels where things like cold water and empty houses make for great storytelling. He’ll make you laugh and tear at your heartstrings in the same song. His voice is like an old baseball glove- once its worn in it never lets you down.
“What’s He Building In There” is a spoken word piece a la “Frank’s Wild Years” off Swordfishtrombones. Waits growls into the microphone as a DJ mixes odd sound effects in the background. The effect is quintessential Waits: “He has a router and a table saw…and you won’t believe what Mr. Sticha saw/there’s poison underneath the sink of course…but there’s also enough formaldehyde to choke a horse…what’s he building in there?” “Black Market Baby” brings Waits’ soulful tendencies together with a hint of his lounge act persona for a sinister ballad: “She’s a diamond that wants to stay coal.”
“Eyeball Kid” and “Filipino Box Spring Hog” are both knee-stomping romps in Waits’ heavily percussive, avant guardist style. It’s amazing how much more aggressive Waits’ music is now compared to the simple singer-songwriter ballads of his early Asylum years. “Chocolate Jesus” is Waits at his most blasphemous: “When the weather gets rough and it’s whiskey in the shade/it’s best to wrap your savior up in cellophane/he flows like the big muddy but that’s ok/pour him over ice cream for a nice parfait.” “Georgia Lee” means well but doesn’t quite connect; however, “Take It With Me” is one of the most affecting tunes Waits has ever recorded. It’s a simple lo-fi ballad sung in an almost nusery-ryhme melody, and with Waits’ gruff it’s even more moving.
Someone who has retained as much underground cool as Waits over the years has a lot to live up to, and it gets scarier every time the prospect of a new record rears its head because you want it to hold its own. There’s nothing worse than watching your heroes lose their impact. Fortunately, Mule Variations is as relevant as any of his records in the eighties, if slightly less groundbreaking, and it will undoubtedly be one of the most revered records released this year. You can feel all of his experience and wisdom in his voice. He just gets better with age, and that’s something you just can’t fake.