Tom Waits has unleashed his first album of new material in more than six years. For those who have followed the lowlife renaissance man's career over the past 26 years, that statement is all the incentive they need to rush out and buy it.
Fortunately, Mule Variations, his first album for Epitaph after severing a long-term relationship with Island Records, manages to pull strands from his eclectic, 17-album career without seeming like rehash. The many faces of Waits are all on display: the gutter poet with the drunken asphalt voice, a bluesman lisping tough, and the crazed sonic experimenter willing to make music out of any object he gets his hands on. It's as if he is opening up his scrapbook and showing you his most private moments. An amalgamation of his own character building, like walking through various lives or chapter in a book.
Waits first gained notice in the early '70s, with a series of records for Elektra/Asylum that were love letters to life in the gutter. He was a modern-day beatnik hobo with a jazz combo backing heartbreaking stories born from the American night. The rouge-with-a-flask persona carried him into the early '80s, and it largely remained unchanged until 1983, when all hell broke loose.
With the release of Swordfishtrombones on Island, a dark, metallic, percussive tour of side-show rejects and other grotesques, Waits blew up his early sound and entered into an aural no man's land. With that record and the next two that round out the "near trilogy"--Raindogs and Frank's Wild Years--Waits threw fragments from his first seven records into a blender and forgot to turn it off. The result could be described as a beautiful cacophony or a pretty train wreck, but practically any description falls short of the mark.
His voice became larger, a raspy, deep, desperate growl hungry to exorcise the bad dreams from his head, each song a different view of an upside-down world. The music went away from traditional jazz or blues melodies, incorporating disparate arrangements and instrumentation. Over the years, Waits and crew have found room for brake drums, a Balinese instrument similar to a xylophone, a bowed saw and a Mellotron, to name a few.
The trilogy also signified two other important changes in his life. He began collaborating with his wife, Kathleen Brennan, on some songs, and he began acting. To date he has appeared in more than 13 films, including Jim Jarmusch's Down by Law and Robert Altman's Short Cuts. Perhaps his explorations of other characters and co-writing with his wife helped inspire the quantum leap.
Though Mule Variations is his first "proper" album in years, Waits has stayed busy since his last studio release, contributing music to a series of projects. He and his wife scored Bunny, a short animated film that won an Academy Award this year. The couple also contributed songs to the Dead Man Walking soundtrack, and Waits will appear in the film Mystery Men this summer.
But for Waits fanatics, these projects are little solace for the fact he has not released an album of new material since 1992's Bone Machine. Now, in a sudden rush of coincidence/ media savvy, Waits is everywhere. With the release of Mule Variations, Bunny receiving acclaim, and Waits being named one of the top 100 artists of all time by VH1, he is back in the public consciousness. He recently recorded a Storytellers segment for VH1, which will air on May 23. He also headlined at this year's SXSW music festival, inspiring an absolute frenzy for tickets, and playing a mesmerizing set of songs that spanned his career.
At the heart of Waits' newly heightened profile, of course, is Mule Variations. A 16-song buffet with Dylanesque characters and bizarre religious imagery, Variations is not just a great record, it's the kind of great record--like Dylan's Time Out of Mind--that can only come with the assurance and wisdom that a long career and eventful life bring. Part field recording, Delta dirt, part monster music, with Western films set in Beckett's void and a paranoid spoken-word rant thrown in for good measure, this is what makes a Waits album so inexplicable and inimitable.
You have the sense that he is simultaneously moving forward with his experimentation and paying tribute to his roots. He has an impressive array of players filling out his usual cadre. Les Claypool of Primus and Beck guitarist Smokey Hormel both play on the record, while John Hammond and Charlie Musselwhite sit in on harp on the bluesy numbers.
"Big in Japan" (not to be confused with the Alphaville song) opens Variations, with a furious noise reported to be Waits banging on a dresser in a hotel room. Five seconds in, we are back in Waitsland, his voice full of sand and bourbon. "Big in Japan" is a fuzzy guitar and horn romp that could have lived on any of the trilogy recordings.
"Hold On" places us back on Midwest small-town terrain. Using his best ballad voice, he softly unravels a sad love story. "Well God bless your crooked little heart/I miss your broken china voice," the narrator says as the camera pans out.
"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.
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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.