Two decades later, this is one ass of an LP we can still get behind
Tom Waits is one of American music’s greatest eccentrics, and there’s no denying it. Known for his Beat-inspired lyricism, a sonic hunch-punch thrown together with the dregs of blues, jazz, vaudeville, and experimental rock, and a voice that critic Daniel Durchholz described as sounding as though “it was soaked in a vat of bourbon, left hanging in the smokehouse for a few months, and then taken outside and run over by car,” Waits’ character lies somewhere between a mad hermit and an anomalous god; he’s weathered, worn out, and whiskey-soaked, like any good American hero.
You’d be hard pressed to find a record that toes the line between uncontrollable madness and genius like Waits’s 1999 epic, Mule Variations. Released six years after The Black Rider and fourteen after the iconic Rain Dogs — on which many insisted Waits’ songwriting had peaked — Mule Variations sheds some of Waits’ crazed carny character without following the well-worn path of the singer-songwriter. The folk flavor is too heavy to call it rock, there’s no denying the heavy inclusion of the blues and, at the core, there’s a rawness that denies its place among other gritty rock records of the late 90s.
The genre hardly matters, though, when compared with the iconicity of Waits’ voice, deep and gravelly like Howlin’ Wolf and Don Van Vliet before him. It’s what ties his catalogue together: equal parts pleasant and disturbing, it paints an image of a man in the shadows, his face lit only by the light from a cigarette as he stirs his brandy with a nail. What he’s doing — and why he’s doing it — remain a mystery. He wails and whimpers over layered percussion and lurching slide guitar, telling stories of lost love, mutant children, cooking pigs on overturned beds, and — in true form with the blues ethos — the occasional hellhound.
Whether or not Mule Variations was a great album, however, was arguable, especially by the rock critics of the time. Some called it genius, picking up where the enigmatic, career-defining Bone Machine left off (“To reach the levels of one of his very best songs, you’d have to spend the next twenty years training with ninjas in a high mountain monastery, travel from there to Haiti to have bizarre Voudon rites performed over your writing hand, and then sell your soul to Satan for good measure,” critic Zach Hooker wrote for Pitchfork following the release). Others gave a nod to the blues flavor and the lack of artifice, but felt he was still writing “outtakes from [Rain Dogs].” The general consensus — or, at least, this writer’s opinion? Mule Variations might not be a particularly new idea for Waits, but it was still a good one.
The hayseed record drags and drawls, then picks up the pace to suit a juke joint on a sweltering Delta Saturday night before slipping in unnoticed with the choir on “Come On Up To the House,” rumpled and smelling faintly of liquor and stale cigarettes. Waits slurs on top of it all, sounding every part the obscure drunken bluesman. In fact, at first listen, most would assume the sixteen tracks were blues standards, but Waits wrote or co-write all of the tracks with his wife, Kathleen Brennan, who is said to have exposed him to the music of Captain Beefheart and inspired the experimental sounds Waits debuted on Swordfishtrombones.
The sprawling stories are covered in dust and haunted by the ghosts of lost love, deep-seated hatred, and regret, intermingled with the occasional ballad — “Hold On,” “Georgia Lee, “Take It With Me” — and a Beatnik-inspired, chill-inducing spoken word performance on “What’s He Building?” that breaks up the frantic blues Robert Johnson invented as he fled his hell-bound state. Waits shines as a balladeer, he is unmatched as a raucous bluesman, and he manages to combine the two personalities on a record. Twenty years later, the result is as captivating as it was the day it was released: an unfinished, haphazard journey deep into the Delta, recanted by a man who’s seen too much, felt too much, and went back for more.
“There’s no light in the tunnel, no irons in the fire
Come on up to the house
And you’re singin’ lead soprano in a junkman’s choir
You gotta come on up to the house.”