Tom Waits. Mule Variations. Epitaph CD 86547, 1999. 71 minutes
review written by Tom Wilmeth
Published in a July 1999 issue of The Shepherd Express.
Mule Variations will prove the most appropriately titled CD of the summer. Tom Waits’ first album of new material in over six years shows the artist stubbornly plowing his musical field exactly as he pleases, and on his own timetable. Variations is also accurate, with Waits’ new songs echoing his entire divergent career, but avoiding any backward glancing.
The recording has a casual atmosphere, as one can hear creaking chairs and occasional background noises on a few of the numbers. Some of the solos are not particularly well miked, and most of the set has the aura of inspired if imperfect first takes. It is reminiscent of J. J. Cale’s early LPs, informally recorded on his front porch. But while Cale settles into a relaxed folksy groove, Waits has different motives. He seems intent on rubbing a little grit into the perfect audio of CD technology, a grit that parallels most of his themes.
Mule Variations begins with a song that pounds its way into your brain, a struggling musician’s lament that recounts all the things lacking in his life. “But I’m big in Japan; I’m big in Japan,” shouts Waits. This self-justification seems funny at first, but on a deeper level becomes sad and unsettling. With this vignette, as in all of his best work, the characters Waits invokes on these 16 tracks are varied and realistically vivid – from a paranoid, wondering what his neighbor is building, to a man completely and unashamedly in love.
While masterfully portraying the situations of others, Waits may also be fairly involved with some of the attitudes found on Mule Variations. “The Chocolate Jesus” initially appears to mock its subject, until one sees that the lyrics are critical of society’s reduction of Christ to the level of a Star Wars action figure. The questions concerning religion get darker and unanswerable during the next number, when the singer wonders “why wasn’t God watching” when the central character of “Georgia Lee” lay dying in a field. In fact, one senses spiritual concerns at several points of this new set, and beyond. One of the few recording projects Waits has taken-on since his 1993 Black Rider CD was to sing, repeatedly and sincerely, “Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet” at the culmination of Gavin Bryars’ moving soundscape project of the same name.
The final track on the new CD is “Come On Up to the House.” But instead of stepping into a house like Lyle Lovett recently constructed as a tribute to fellow songwriters, Waits invites us in for a more personal tour. In this house are extensions of the paradoxes expressed on track one – not offered with a defeatist attitude, but with one that reflects realism and hard learned recognition. It’s the same clear eye for life that this unique artist has always possessed when portraying the scenes that surround him, from Small Change to Rain Dogs. But on Mule Variations Waits seems to turn his gaze inward as well as outward. Because we repeatedly see ourselves on both sides of the world he presents, the CD withstands close and repeated scrutiny.
Much is being made of two things tangentially related to this music -- one is the length of time that Waits has been away. The second is disappointment over the man’s steadfast refusal to tour. The first shows a refreshing attitude – an artist who puts out new songs only when he feels that he and they are ready. Most of Mule Variations can certainly stand beside Waits’ best work, which does make the second point frustrating. Seeing him perform this material in a small theater could be magical, since his concerts have often been atmospheric extensions of his songs’ moods. But Waits must be respected for plowing his own deep and unique furrow. And like his rejection of conforming to a rigid release schedule, he simply refuses to go back on the road – must be that mule in him.