Robert Johnson's father said that the thing about his boy was that he wouldn't get behind the mule in the morning and plow. Tom Waits works hard. He's behind the mule, but his furrows are stubbornly crooked, and sometimes deep. It's been six years between The Black Rider and this new album, Mule Variations, but Tom has been busy. He made film music for "Dead Man Walking" and for Wim Wenders' "The End of Violence," he sang along with a 1971 recording of an old hobo for Gavin Bryars' "Jesus Blood Never Failed Me Yet," and he even contributed songs for an opera of "Alice in Wonderland," as well as things for a new Barry Levinson film. After parting from his previous record company with an obligatory (yet useful) greatest non-hits album, he's tugging at our coats again with 16 new songs recorded at a chicken ranch with a sound Waits calls "surrural" -- a cross between surreal and rural.
Significantly, Mule Variations is not merely a "new" Tom Waits
recording; it is the culmination of more than 25 years of his work. His
Closing Time (1973) was a quiet debut, featuring melancholic,
almost self-effacing tunesmithery ("Ol' 55" was famously covered by the Eagles), and little of his now-famous growl and bombast. The Heart of Saturday Night (1974) was more assured, less folky, more jazzy. But it was Nighthawks at the Diner (1975) that literally put Waits on the map: part comedy album, with introductions that were often longer and more entertaining than the songs themselves, it established Waits' persona as hobo bragmeister, part wildman, part lost soul. The albums of the late '70s introduced a new and strange note. On Small Change, you could hear the strip club tom toms, the frenzied rave, the beginnings of a voice that would muddy itself into something never heard on record before: a shredded, stricken instrument capturing the wail of a train leaving town, a drunk's buzz and the weeds coming up between the cracks in places where you could live, lose and die unheralded, though not necessarily alone. "Tom Traubert's Blues" even interpolated bits of "Waltzing Matilda," while "The Piano Has Been Drinking (Not Me)" made fine use of all the wrong notes on the keyboard.
It's not often remarked that Waits is an amazing multi-instrumentalist,
which means that albums like Blue Valentine (1978) could veer
from rock to orchestral linoleum to jazz or blues without sounding
mixed-up. That album's highlight was a version of "Somewhere," from
"West Side Story," but Heartattack and Vine even had a tinge of
country. Nothing prepared the world for the trilogy of
Swordfishtrombones (1983), Rain Dogs (1985) and Frank's Wild
Years (1987) -- practically avant-garde, these albums were performed on everything from glasses filled with water and brake linings to full
brass bands, and Waits' voice fell so deep it can probably never come
back up now. More recent albums, like Bone Machine (1992) and
The Black Rider (1993), were more coherent (though arguably less brilliant) and were basically concept albums. Almost everything Waits has done since the '80s -- even his overlooked soundtrack album, One from the Heart (1983), which featured Crystal Gayle -- belongs in your record collection.
After all this remarkable work, you'd think Waits was destined to make a false move at some point. But Mule Variations is sure-footed.
The first spadeful is a godawful cacophony that sounds like Waits
busting up a hotel room in time to his own howling. The howling segues
into "Big In Japan" (RealAudio excerpt), a song about the anti-poetry of street-corner
bragging: "I got the moon, I got the cheese/ I got the whole dang nation
on their knees!"
There's a fight, and someone is stabbed; the one who rolls to the low
side of the road goes to jail. "Lowside of the Road" sounds as though it
was recorded during a field exhibition on a wire-recorder, and like
several of the songs on this album, the music is to the blues what
Waits' earlier work was to jazz; it features a vocal that sounds like
Keith Richards on cough syrup: "When the ground rises up with a groan/
you'll be moving to the lowside of the road."
"Hold On" (RealAudio excerpt) is a ballad along the lines of "Time" or "Blind Love," and is
strangely gorgeous: "I miss your broken china voice," he burbles, having
presented someone with a dimestore watch and a ring made from a spoon. "Get Behind the Mule" -- like its earlier cousin, "Shore Leave" -- is a world-weary and wise howl, a work song, or maybe a
running-away-from-work song; a whip cracks in painful percussion as
Waits sits "stirrin' my brandy with a nail" and dispenses all manners of
roustabout advice. Another "I've-seen-it-all, boys" lament is "Pony," a
sing-around-the-trashfire tune about living on dreams and train smoke
and desperately hoping that your horse knows the way home.
The self-explanatory "House Where Nobody Lives" is a kind of "Love In
Vain" for an abandoned home; it grows on you like a family. Some of
Waits' merry melodies sound so familiar they're practically inevitable: "Cold Water" is something you might hear kids chant on a bus, except that it's about policemen who don't look very friendly, begging on a freeway, and sleeping in graveyards.
"What's He Building In There" is the only letdown. A noir story similar
to the swell "Frank's Wild Years," it's made up of what you might say
about your neighbors, and for that matter, what they about you, behind
the curtains. My favorite indictment: "He has a router." Speaking of
noir, there's a dark love song, "Black Market Baby," not about an
infant, but about a woman who's "a diamond who wants to stay coal."
"Eyeball Kid" features a ghastly vocal that sounds like a
hoarse-throated circus shill chanting, and sports a great Waits-ism,
"Cry right here on the dotted line." Not all is nightmarish, however.
"Picture in a Frame" is one of the most affecting songs Waits has come
up with in years; it's more Tin Can Alley than Tin Pan Alley, but only
by a hair. The superb anti-gospel of "Come On Up to the House"
(RealAudio excerpt) is
something out of a trailer-park funeral procession, and it's both funny
Speaking of blasphemy, of which there's more on this one album than in
all of Waits' previous work put together, "Chocolate Jesus" is, you
guessed it, about something tastier than a communion wafer, and features a rooster crowing on cue. "I don't want no Abba Zabba ... Don't want no Almond Joy," indeed! Less amusing is "Georgia Lee," a lament for an ill-fated young runaway in which Waits wails, "Why wasn't God watching?"
"Filipino Box Spring Hog" is a song resurrected from an old benefit
album, and is the closest Waits gets to hip-hop; it's a recipe for
making a barbecue pit out of a bed.
Best of all is "Take It With Me," the kind of Waits tune you grow
teary-eyed over after a bout with some pugilistic wine. It's a
phone-off-the-hook love song, a hackle-raising stunner, which promises
that when it comes to love, you can take it with you.
This is Waits worth the wait. It's superb, sublime, it's "surrural!"
Don't be a mule; if you like Tom Waits at all, just go get this album.
I'm sure it'll be big in Japan in no time.