Tom Waits’ latest release, Mule Variations, is a definitive listening experience. He displays a diversity in his music that is best explained as a combination of sounds, both vocally and instrumentally, comparable to that of Bob Dylan, Little Feat, and Bruce Springsteen. He is part country twang, part folk, with rock and blues elements intertwined throughout the music, separately in some songs and mingling together in others.
First of all, skip the first song, “Big in Japan”, and listen to it last. You will not appreciate or understand it until you hear what else Waits is capable of doing. “Get Behind The Mule” sports a sound characteristic of the old recordings of the likes of Robert Johnson, as though it is something from a time passed. The percussion and harmonica are purely down-home. “Chocolate Jesus” offers a similar sound vocally. “House Where Nobody Lives”, “Picture In a Frame”, “Georgia Lee”, and “Take It With Me” are heartfelt songs about love and loving, having and losing. You’ll want to sing along with “Cold Water”. It made me want to get together with a bunch of good friends and some cold beer, singing and sweating under the beating sun of this funky body-swaying blues ballad. This is mellow, free rolling, good time music.
The unsightly blemish on this album is “What’s He Building?” because it just didn’t seem to fit this groove; maybe that was the intention. I really have to be in the mood for this style. It is presented in spoken word, reminiscient of Frank Zappa when he was telling, not singing but telling, you a song. Lyrically, I don’t know where he is going with “Filipino Box Spring Hog”, but it sounds good. He spits the words at you, saturated in the salty music. His “Black Market Baby” is “a diamond that wants to stay coal”. My favorite songs on the album are “Cold Water” and the hard driving, foot-stomping “Come On Up To The House”.
His voice is gravel and honey throughout the disc. I cannot do Mule Variations justice here. You can hear his down and dirty love for his music as he revels in his own vocal delivery. Lyrically, even when he is repetitious, his words are meaningful and his voice serves to heighten the feeling that he conveys through these. I have to use so many other names to describe his style because he defies any description that could be explained in terms of mere words. Anything I say is too much, but at the same time, it is simply not enough. I am going out and buying more Tom Waits. If you like any of the people I have named, go out and get this disc. You will not be disappointed.
+ alissa shugats