Friday, September 21, 2012

Tom Waits 17: Mule Variations

Just in time for the end of the century, Tom Waits came back from too long an absence with the sixteen new songs that comprise Mule Variations. The tunes run the gamut from the grating clatter of his early-‘90s work to the heartbreaking piano balladry that always gets him mention as a great American songwriter. Such reliable Waits sidemen as Marc Ribot, Ralph Carney and Greg Cohen appear, alongside Primus, John Hammond, Smokey Hormel and Charlie Musselwhite.
The album seems to pick up where Bone Machine left off, with the noise and rumble of “Big In Japan” and “Lowside Of The Road”. Then “Hold On” enters with a gentle set of strummed and picked guitars, seeming to be a conversation between a man and a woman, with a simple yet adhesive chorus. “Get Behind The Mule” is a lengthy blues that doesn’t ever drag. The piano emerges on “House Where Nobody Lives”, a melody worthy of his ‘70s stuff without the gravel in the rasp. “Cold Water” slows the blues down even further and dirtier, and “Pony” pairs a pump organ with a dobro for a lonesome lyrics about wanting to get back home. The song everybody talked about is “What’s He Building?”, a spooky monologue about a Boo Radley-type neighbor that could well be used to describe himself.
That’s a full album right there, but this was the ‘90s, so there’s plenty more to go. “Black Market Baby” is a painfully slow love song, picked up by the twisted sideshow of the “Eyeball Kid”, a freak whose physical attributes consist of just that. “Picture In A Frame” says a lot with very little, a sweet valentine over a pretty piano. “Chocolate Jesus” takes an entrepreneurial slant on gospel, covered over by the sad lament of “Georgia Lee”. “Filipino Box Spring Hog” originally appeared on a various artists collection as an outtake from the last album; here it’s just as raucous and silly. The two best songs are saved for last—the positively beautiful “Take It With Me” and the more inspirational “Come On Up To The House” (sample lyric: “Come down off the cross, we can use the wood”; good advice any day of the week).
Mule Variations has everything: slow stank, heartbreak and banging on the heat pipes. By covering such a wide swath of styles, it’s an excellent introduction along the lines of Small Change and Rain Dogs. It might not convert the unconvinced, but those of us who enjoy it hoped it wouldn’t be another six years before the next one. (Unless that’s what it takes for him to create something of this quality.)

Tom Waits Mule Variations (1999)—4

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