RS #416: Tom Waits, Mule Variations


Tom Waits, Mule Variations

Release Date: 1999
Previously Owned: Yes

“I didn’t marry I man. I married a mule,” Kathleen Brennan, Tom Waits’ wife

Impressions: Tom Waits is a good candidate as any to be immune from the dreaded late-career album doldrums. He always seemed like a old guy on the inside with his whiskey and cigarette rasp, beatnik/bluesy subject matter and general craggy demeanor, so naturally it would follow that could age nicely into his persona. He never really went away, but Mule Variations at the time was well regarded as a “comeback.” Let’s put it on… The lo-fi, junkyard percussion blasts in on the odd-ball boast opening track “Big In Japan” and lets you know he’s not reinventing the wheel, just refining his style. He sounds more natural on this record than early in his career when he would sometimes strain to sound like Howlin’ Wolf. “Hold On” is a gentle, heartbreaking ballad as good as anything in his catalog. A cracked, beautiful masterpiece. The bluesy “Get Behind The Mule” is a nice showcase for  Waits’ secret weapon, guitarist Smokey Hormel. He provides deft support throughtout, never overwhelming the tunes. For all the high points of this album, I forgot how his albums can get caught in an slow-paced undertow for periods (i.e., “Cold Water,” “Pony,” and “Black Market Baby.”) Honestly, I thought I remembered liking this album better when it came out, but maybe my brain edited out the sluggish patches. Despite this, when everything comes together, Waits is capable of getting to me emotionally like few artists can. Maybe it’s his impossibly sad, spare piano sound that is somehow has a direct connection to my heart, I don’t know. In the end, the album won me back with strong run at the end with the jaunty “Philipino Box Spring Hog,” the heartbreaking “Take It With Me” and the soulful “Come On Up To The House” has wry but uplifting lyrics like “All your cryin don’t do no good/Come on up to the house/Come down off the cross/We can use the wood.”Starred Songs:  “Big In Japan,” “Hold On”
Sneaky Track: “Philipino Box Spring Hog,” “Come On Up To The House”
Should this album be on the list? Yes
Will you listen to this again? Yes

Verdict: Solid late-career entry for the incomparable Waits drags in the middle, but it has a batch of his all-time best songs make it a classic.

Rating: ★★★★ (If it was cut down to 45 minutes (LP length,) I might rank it higher.)