Mule Variations starts with what sounds like a rhythmically capable panel beater knocking seven bells out of a steel filing cabinet with hammers, and it gives you a glimpse of what Tom Waits had been doing in the seven years since the release of Bone Machine. As an album, the deconstructed blues of Mule Variations was affirmation than Waits hadn’t mislaid his muse during the extended break from the recording studio and that he was still as vital a force in music as ever.
With the glorious opener “Big In Japan”, Mule Variations heralded the return of one of music’s great mavericks and is a glorious racket, “Hold On” is what Bruce Springsteen wants to sound like in his own head, “What’s he Building?” is a freaky monologue about an even more freaky misfit neighbour, and “Picture In A Frame” is the nearest thing to a straight forward ballad that Waits had written for a very long time. There are moments of absolute madness as well, such as “Filipino Box Spring Hog”, and as such, is one of the highlights of the second half of the album.
Mule Variations is also littered with mid-paced gems such as “Get Behind The Mule”, “Chocolate Jesus” and the closing duo of “Take It With Me” and “Come On Up To The House” all of which are brought to life by a production job by Waits and his partner, Kathleen Brennan, that has dirt underneath its fingernails. In fact the whole of the album has a spontaneous and organic feeling to it which highlights the fact that Mule Variations was not recorded in a studio, but rather a farm house.
There’s a sense that Waits needed Mule Variations to be as attention grabbing as possible. Seven years is a long time in the music industry, and he needed an album that was a reminder of his depth and range for his established fans, while also acting as an introduction to those potential fans that were simply a little too young to be familiar with his previous work (and I include myself in that). Mule Variations pulled that off spectacularly, effectively kicking off the ‘phase 3′ of Waits’ career which continues twenty years later, while also presenting his new label Anti- with one of the landmark releases of his career, and getting that working relationship off to a flying start.
Mule Variations was my first taste of Tom Waits as a recording artist, and after twenty years, exploring the various phases of his career, and listening to The Song by Song Podcast on a regular basis, it’s still one of my favourite albums by the great man.