#416 in Rolling Stone's 500 Greatest Albums
Five or six years ago, when I was a wee STLMiguel, I discovered that the library just up the street from my house allowed you to check out CDs. The selection, as one might expect, was a bit shaky, but one of the few gems they did have available was Tom Waits' Mule Variations
. Recognizing the name, but ignorant about the man's music, I checked it out. I was unsure about what to expect, but it was free, right? If I hated it, I could just put the disc back in its case and return it. Well, put it back in its case was exactly what I did! I hated Mule Variations
and Waits bothered me. The man was nuts and I wanted nothing to do with him. Thankfully, I gave the album a second chance a year or two later and discovered that I loved what I heard. In fact, I became obsessed with Waits rather quickly. I now own every album the man has released and he is, without question, one of my favorite two or three songwriters of all time.
However, I do my very best to remain realistic when rating Waits' albums. I might dig all of them (well, almost all of them), but that doesn't mean they all get a 5/5 rating. In fact, in the 31 years since Waits first started recording music, I think just two of his albums were legitimately flawless enough to deserve a 5/5: 1985's mind-bending Rain Dogs
and 1999's Mule Variations
. For the story on Rain Dogs
, well, read a Rain Dogs
review. For the story on Mule Variations
, just don't do anything crazy like minimizing the window or suddenly going blind.
Overall, Mule Variations
is Waits' most consistent effort, even better song-for-song than Rain Dogs
, and the album does a wonderful job of blending the man's two distinctly different personalities.
Two different personalities? You read that right. Just let me explain. There's the side of Waits I'll refer to as Nice Guy Tom
, the Randy Newman-like piano man who writes love songs for his wife and occasionally dabbles in jazz, and then there's the side I'll refer to as Evil Tom
, the crazed lunatic who screams at the top of his lungs and writes songs with titles such as "Earth Died Screaming" and "Everything Goes to Hell." Throughout his career, Waits has pulled off these two styles remarkably well, but Mule Variations
is the only album that finds him perfecting these two sides of his personality and even blending them into one.
The album kicks off with "Big in Japan," which is all Evil Tom. Creepy, distorted vocal effects kick off the song and they are quickly followed by a dirty electric guitar, New Orleans-style horns and a bass part played by Primus mastermind Les Claypool. The lyrics here are tongue-in-cheek ...
I got the style
But not the grace
I got the clothes
But not the face
I got the bread
But not the butter
I got the window
But not the shutter
But I'm big in Japan
I'm big in Japan
... but the music is still too raw and full of energy for the track to be seen as silly or laid-back. In fact, with the strange vocal effects continuing throughout the track, "Big in Japan" proves that even when Waits is having fun, he can still scare the hell out of you. The album's next highlight is "Hold On," an appearance by Nice Guy Tom that features one of the catchiest melodies of Waits' career. It isn't as catchy as, say, a Tom Petty or Kanye West tune, but it's a melody that's strong and memorable, the kind you'll get stuck in your head for days. Next, Nice Guy Tom delivers two more gems, the sparse, bluesy "Get Behind the Mule" and the soul-soaked "House Where Nobody Lives," but Evil Tom quickly returns with "What's He Building?" and "Black Market Baby." "What's He Building?" is a terrific spoken-word piece and "Black Market Baby" features a great solo from guitarist Mark Ribot and an appearence by a chilled-out turntable.
For the rest of the album, practically every track offers something different, but it's the final three songs I want to focus on for the rest of the review, starting with Evil Tom's "Filipino Box Spring Hog." Featuring some mean harmonica work from Charlie Musselwhite and more turntable, "Filipino" sounds like something an ancient tribe would listen to while dancing around a roaring fire. Seriously, you can almost imagine some stereotypical tribe member, bone through his noise and all, banging away on a giant drum while Waits screams into the microphone. It's that
raw of a track. Next is "Take it With Me," possibly the sweetest love song of his career. Just check these lyrics ...
Phone's off the hook
No one knows where we are
It's a long time since I drank champagne
The ocean is blue
As blue as your eyes
I'm gonna take it with me when I go
... simple, sure, but when you hear him singing these words over a gorgeous piano part, it becomes clear just how much he loves his wife. Nice Guy Tom, you sappy old devil! Finally, we have the album's final track, "Come On Up to the House." This is the moment where Good Guy Tom and Evil Tom shake hands and join forces. I know it might seem like I'm saying things are "the best of Waits' career" a lot in this review, but trust me here, this is the best song
Tom Waits has ever performed. It's slow and beautiful, building momentum as it moves on, and Musselwhite plays more badass harmonica throughout. Pounding away on a wonderful piano part as he sings, Waits delivers the lyrics with a truckload of passion and you can practically hear that he's got a huge grin on his face. I say this is the best song he ever did, but there's not really a ton I can say about it ... you just have to hear this one for yourself, I suppose. If you are new to Waits, definitely consider downloading this track to see what you think.
As I've said several different times in this review, I think Mule Variations
is Waits at his best. It was his first album for Epitaph, so I don't know if the change in scenery inspired him or if it was something else entirely, but whatever it was that got him going worked wonders. His next three albums, Alice
, Blood Money
and Real Gone
, have all had their moments, but none of them have been as consistent, or as rewarding, as this.
Check it out! You'll love it.