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Ten Years Later: Mule Variations

August 27, 2009

Tom Waits - Mule Variations

Tom Waits
Mule Variations
April 16, 1999

In April 1999 when Pitchfork’s Zach Hooker reviewed “Mule Variations” he claimed that no one reading would ever write a song as good as one of Waits’ worst songs. Praise like that doesn’t come lightly; however, for an artist with a back catalog as deep and rich as Waits, such praise is nearly commonplace.

Though he may be used to commendation, the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences doesn’t just give away their award, better known as a Grammy, based upon pedigree. And “Mule Variations” certainly has the material to deserve its Best Contemporary Folk Album distinction.

Waits’ trademark  sound is stamped all over this album. The album picks up stylistically where Waits’ previous studio album, Bone Machine (which was released in 1992), left off but it sacrifices much of the cacophonous clatter that release entailed. The legendary singers’ signature dry, raspy growl is displayed in full from the first song on the album, “Big In Japan,” and retains that familiar discordant roar with the help of the band Primus.

More familiar elements of his’ musical style is evident in the rootsy “Get Behind the Mule” in which the subject matter of the lyrics turn to typical, almost Bukowskian despair. On “Cold Water” his gloominess continues as he sings:

Blind or crippled
Sharp or dull
I’m reading the Bible
By a 40 watt bulb
What price freedom
Dirt is my rug
Well I sleep like a baby
With the snakes and the bugs

What is so memorable about this album, like any other Waits’ offering, is when the singer/songwriter hearkens back to beginnings and presents slower tunes like those from 1974’s “Closing Time.”

The slow moving beauty of songs like “Hold On” and “Pony” add to the overall character of the album and tell wonderfully strange stories of love in broken places and the drifter headed to wherever home may be.

The ballads make this album so unforgettable. Waits moves the listener with the passion of his stories and the softness of the music. It is the contrast between “Picture In a Frame” and “Filipino Box Spring Hog” that make each work so perfectly together. They create a yin and a yang; or a peanut butter to the others jelly, if you rather.. Without the rattling dissonance on this album, the gentleness would not seem as distinct.

Waits never forgets how to really tell a story either, and he reminds the listener of the magnificence of his poetry in “What’s He Building?” and “Black Market Baby.” His bourbon soaked voice half-sings, half-whispers menacingly through the speakers, creating an aura as ominous and grotesque as the people and places he is describing.

Ten years removed from the release of this album it’s status among the Waits discography is still debated, though some believe it to be his best work.

Regardless of its rank it is certainly a remarkable piece of work, that stands tall among an exceptional group. Waits was on the top of his game in 1985 when he released “Rain Dogs,” and he wasn’t too far off with this album.

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