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"Get Behind the Mule," "Cold Water" and "Chocolate Jesus" are three takes on down-and-dirty blues, the last two stretching the form until it's very nearly broken. On "Mule" you can hear what would have been the hiss of vinyl in an earlier time. The song also has a great instrumental coda featuring Musselwhite's ample lungs on harp. "Cold Water" is classic, nasty Waits at his vagabond best, a gospel ode to street life, sung in a voice borrowed from a rabid dog: "Blind or crippled/Sharp or dull/I'm reading the Bible/By a 40-watt bulb."
"Chocolate Jesus" shares that strange pious tone with an odd twist: The protagonist worships by eating chocolate on Sundays rather than going to church. The song was recorded outside with spare blues instruments and a live rooster chiming in on cue. Far from blasphemous, there is a believable reverence in Waits' voice as he sings to his chocolate Christ.
"Georgia Lee" and "Pony" are two of the better sad ballads. "Georgia Lee" tells the true story of a young runaway who was found dead in a grove. Painted with bass, piano, violin and Waits' expressive throat, the song dares to leave open space and unanswered questions. Similarly, Waits is not afraid to let "Pony" breathe. The track features Hormel's Dobro, Waits on pump organ (you can hear the pedals!) and Hammond's harmonica touching the story with just the right empathy.
Though Mule Variations is quieter than some of Waits' most recent efforts, there are still a few clanging explosive numbers. "Eyeball Kid" could have fit on The Black Rider (an opera Waits wrote with theater director Robert Wilson and Greg Cohen) or Frank's Wild Years. With seven players, including two people utilizing turntables, it's almost too full-sounding. But if the result is a bit discordant, what else would you expect from a tale about, well, a huge disembodied human eyeball? Put to good effect is the "Prince voice" that was all over Frank's Wild Years, crossed with a carny coming through a bullhorn. With heavy percussion and Balinese chanting, it's fun for the whole family.
Another monster romper is "Filipino Box Spring Hog," a song about a party where the focus is on cookin' up a hog on a mattress buried underground. With 11 contributors, it's another evil bombastic romp that sounds like its namesake.
Amidst all the static and perverse sound mutilations are some genuinely tender (gasp) love songs. Somehow, for all his strut and cock, it seems like Waits has in fact settled down. "Take It With Me" and "Picture in a Frame" are straight-out love songs to his wife and family life. Potentially saccharine if played by Waits in his early years, these songs work because of their inherent, hard-earned honesty. Strangest of all, the album's final song, "Come On Up to the House," is a lay-your-burden-down life affirmation.
So, from cacophony to hobo holiness to balladry and back, Mule Variations is schizo-logic. It hangs together by the sheer will of the songs' creator, each tune bending your ear in its divergent direction. But what does it all mean? Leave it to Waits himself in a recent interview: "I don't know. Sylvia Miles said, 'People will come and go, but theatrical memorabilia will never let you down as long as you keep it in clear plastic.' And that's always stayed with me. I don't know what that means, but I always loved that." Exactly.