Tom Waits – Mule Variations

Thomas! But anyway, this is Tom Waits blooze album! After six years of Philip Glassy silence the Waitsenator returns with an album that remindifies one of old black’n’sad folk music. And no, I’m not a talented enough music critic to describe exactly what it blooze. I’m here for my looks, okay? It’s slow-paced, with lots of sustained clean guitar notes and a sombre, coal-miningish atmosphere. And, Christ, with a few exceptions, the songs are played with actual drums and otherwise normal instruments! Tom Waits is playing with a band again, sort of! Don’t get too fancy in your pantsies, it won’t last.

The sorta title track, “Get Behind the Mule” invents, over seven minutes, a new way of describing shrugging one’s shoulders and getting to work. Working seventy hours this work? You’re getting behind the mule. Gonna spend the summer making minimum wage? Get behind the mule. Got a schedule full of funerals? Get behind the damned mule, it’s how it is. So that’s great. Less fantastic is that there’s no easy entry point to this album. There’s a lot of great songs but nothing “accessible” except the chorus of “Hold On.” This is great for that minute at the end of “Hold On” when Tom does the chorus four times in a row and everything is right in the world, but otherwise the album is a bit daunting. But keep at it! Tom rarely lets you down and has bread for us baby birds if we believe.

It’s a bit of a double album. Tom follows tradition by making the first song the most Waitsy and mockable song of all, and the second song is a little ol’ forgettable ballsack, but then there follow six fantastic songs, starting with “Hold On” and ending with the fucking brilliant “What’s He Building In There?”, a spoken-word journey first through a creepy guy in the neighbourhood but on repeated listenings really about paranoia and distrust and homeowners associations and filled with wonderful, quotable lines.

Sadly, the second half is far weaker. The closer “Come On Up to the House” is a nice gray spot in an album normally about the dredges of repetitive life, and “Picture in a Frame” has the album’s best verse melody and “Georgia Lee” has a lovely chorus, but “Chocolate Jesus” is an overwrought failure and “Eyeball Kid” is meh and “Filipino Box Spring Hog” has limited mileage.

But come on. This is one of the few times Tom sticks to a theme without sticking to a character, and I like the former more than the latter as Tom is concerned. You can dig it in front of normies and not have to laugh and say “Tom Waits” every few minutes. It’s the blooze and Tom is well suited to playing it, more than I think he’s suited to Carnivale or pirate songs, both of which he’s sung before to limited effect. Good stuff, soulful stuff, stuff that feeds many moods, but most of all it’s a working album, like Modest Mouse’s “This is a Long Drive etc.” Hey, could be worse, the future could have been George Orwell.

Hey, want to have awful nightmares? Play Demonophobia!

8/10

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