16 April 1999
A somewhat fragmented collection of Waits’s unique assets, 1999’s Mule Variations picked up a Grammy and plenty of new interest in the by-now legendary performer, but sits oddly in his back catalogue, seeming something like a ‘best of’ compilation made up entirely of new songs. The ‘Variations’ in the title clearly suggests a Waits in self-pastiche mode, perhaps recognising that mainstream listeners were due to be reminded of his masterful presence and serving up individual, bite-sized portions of his oddities and tragedies, rather than wrapping them up in his usually varied but somehow unified whole.
Even if it’s not that coherent as an overall album, the songs themselves easily serve their purpose of presenting Waits’s style in an accessible but basically uncompromised manner. “Lowside of the Road” sees Waits deliver some devilish snarling like a sinister come-on, while “Cold Water” belts out some wonderfully blistering blues with unapologetic coarseness. “Black Market Baby” and “Eyeball Kid” seem to come from the same place as Waits’s often-disturbing stage work with Robert Wilson, and “Chocolate Jesus” has a wry charm and style that lifts it well above being a mere gimmick song (such as the album’s opener, “Big in Japan”, surely the least-interesting song he’s ever written).
But what does finally elevate Mule Variations into something unique is hearing one of Waits’s greatest—and frequently overlooked—attributes burst forth more confidently than ever before. Whether it’s for hustlers and whores, carnies and addicts, dead-beats and palookas, lost souls and beaten-down dreamers, Waits’s enduring compassion is fully on display here—indelible, sincere, and blisteringly powerful.
As Mule Variations comes to a close, the last few ballads finally form some kind of unified flow. “Picture in a Frame” and its simple lyrics are too honest to be trite, verbalising the plain joy that comes with a seemingly-tangible moment of love and warmth. “Take It with me”, similarly, has no time for pretence (“Always for you / And forever yours”), embracing the immediate simplicity that inspires the most spiritual of thoughts.
These delicate and tender moments are finally capped by the majestic and stomping “Come on Up to the House”, where Waits seems to become an elder sage, mere steps away from the all-compassionate, all-forgiving God he wrote of in “Down There by the Train” for Johnny Cash, and offering refuge and comfort for all those who would seek it. With the perspective of age (“Come down off the cross / We can use the wood”) and the experience of a life well-lived (“Does life seem nasty, brutish and short?”) Waits’s call to “Come on up to the house” never seems judgemental or demanding, but suggests a call to a higher plane of personal wisdom, resilience, and, of course, compassion. Kit MacFarlane
27 April 1999
Ben Folds Five
The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner
When Ben Folds Five exploded, they were a college band. Despite breakout hit “Brick”‘s somber tale of abortion and the shockingly detached nature of its narrator, Folds had a reputation as the best kind of pseudoadolescent: the kind who refused to grow up, and the kind who was, at least on the outside, wildly successful and unflinchingly happy despite—or, because of—his state of arrested development. He could sing about adorable, quirky, perfect pixies, bitch about his uncles and ex-girlfriends, and write back-page-of-the-journal love songs that didn’t sound like love songs. What he was doing wasn’t deep, it just felt like the place you wanted to be in ten years.
The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner came along and ruined all that.
The first hint that Folds had changed direction was the sound of the album: it wasn’t quite Ben Folds Floyd, but it may as well have been for its departure from the simple, direct piano-bass-vocals sound of previous albums. John Mark Painter on the flugelhorn alone would have been difficult enough, but the electronics of album opener “Narcolepsy”, the violins of “Magic”, the treated, barroom-style piano of “Mess”... well, once those first four tracks were out of the way, we were so exhausted from the departure that we just didn’t have patience for the rest of it.
When we finally forced ourselves to listen, though, hearing what we did made things even more difficult. This was not happy-go-lucky Ben—the Ben who might be sad but at least he’s still energetic about it; the Ben who’d just as soon toss out an f-bomb as extend a metaphor for the length of a song. This was sad-sack Ben, a side we hadn’t met yet. This was an album about divorce. “Hospital Song” is five lines of sadness that end in death. Even the upbeat songs are laced with an almost off-putting, cutting, humorless sarcasm. If not for the hopeful final pair of tracks, the entire thing would be utterly bleak and hopeless. Our hero, it seemed, was giving up.
What we didn’t realize at that point was that Reinhold Messner was a transitional album, the one where Folds started to allow us to see all the sides of his personality and not just the fun, concert-ready ones. Perhaps it’s the context of his solo work that allows us now to see Reinhold Messner for what it really is: emotionally naked, beautifully melodic, and wonderfully varied. Or, perhaps, those of us who were in college during the beginnings of Ben Folds Five have grown up a bit ourselves, and are only now ready to fully appreciate it. Mike Schiller