Tom Waits
Photo: Anti- Records

25 Years of Tom Waits’ ‘Mule Variations’

With Mule Variations, Tom Waits tamed his vaudevillian guises and showed that he was aging gracefully, while retaining his integrity towards his artistry.

Mule Variations
Tom Waits
Anti- Records
16 April 1999

At no point during Tom Waits‘ decades-long career has he adhered to current trends. In the 1970s, he didn’t have to worry about it because singer-songwriters were already trendy. Waits wrote and released six albums in the 1970s alone, specifically between 1973 and 1978. Back then, he was in his mid-to-late 20s and had as much energy and ambition as a gruff night owl like him could muster through extensive writing, recording, and touring. In the 1980s, he certainly didn’t follow the glam rock, synthpop, new jack swing, or new wave trends. Following periodic fashions would have been disingenuous for Waits, and he’s the kind of entertainer who sets his own standards. Waits is a man of many interests, but none of those interests involve appearing to be cool or appealing to and impressing those who dictate what cool is.

It happened that, during the 1990s, the alternative stylings of pop culture in the West fit at least some of Waits’ eccentric aesthetic. He saw plenty of success in past years. Still, the 1990s were a decade that accepted his deranged imagination and weird personality, possibly because other popular artists were also being recognized for bizarre, surrealistic, and unguarded styles within music videos and live performances. His unusual voice and performative approach fit with the deeply saturated lighting, Dutch angles, and fish-eye lens stylings encompassing much of what was seen in film, TV, and music videos. The 1990s were full of liquidy, odd, expressionistic aesthetics via the inception and popularity of MTV and music videos in general, which fueled supply and demand for highly stylized presentations from musicians. 

Waits’ presentation, both on stage and sonically, is like a show of peculiar rarities. He uninhibitedly experiments and builds on blues and jazz while romanticizing vaudeville and freak show culture. His artistic tastes have always been uncanny, curious, and twisted. He’s always had a penchant for theatricality. It’s evident in his crooked posture, the way he holds his hands out with his elbows to his chest, the way he gesticulates emphatically, and his signature, unmistakable smoked voice. His theatricality is also evident in the way he takes on characters within his songs and tells stories from the perspectives of travelers and rootless folks. It’s easy to think that Tom Waits’ experiences through his travels as an entertainer and the abnormal social sceneries he stumbled into fed into his music.

For two decades, Waits remained busy writing music for studio albums and stage plays as well as touring and acting in film, gaining momentum and barely slowing down. But after the release of 1992’s Bone Machine and 1993’s The Black Rider (the latter being studio recordings of music written for a theatrical work, not a traditionally written studio album), Waits had cut down on touring. A month before the release of 1999’s Mule Variations, he performed his first live show in three years at the South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas. At this point, Waits was approaching the age of 50. He had built a generous 26-year career as a recording artist, marked by 12 full-length studio albums. He had matured quite a bit towards the end of the decade, growing into a sophistication as a storytelling troubadour. 

Once again, towards the end of the century, he didn’t seem to care about Y2K culture, even though everyone else did. Tom Waits exists and thrives in his own cultural vacuum, and with the release of Mule Variations, his 13th studio album, he returned to the bizarre aesthetics that he has always valued so dearly, molding jazz, blues, rock, and folk music—and all the cultural elements associated with each genre—into his oddball, unconventional exhibition but with a newly gentlemanly disposition. Mule Variations is like a different spin on a classic drink that is the Tom Waits oeuvre.

Taking a turn from the nihilism explored in Bone Machine, Waits and his wife and co-writer Kathleen Brennan baked a sense of optimism into many of the songs on Mule Variations. The old-timey chorus of “Get Behind the Mule” is undoubtedly motivating. Waits’ voice hangs over twangy, low-to-the-ground instrumentation as he repeats the line, “You got to get behind the mule in the morning and plow.” It leaves the impression of picking yourself up after being at the point of tragedy, exhaustion, and giving up.

The sole single, “Hold On”, carries its optimism plainly in the song’s name. Even the homeless character pushed in the lyrics of “Cold Water” seems to romanticize the vagabond lifestyle, particularly in being shunned by society and unable to sleep in a bed or take a warm shower. Mule Variations is full of positive perceptions of lowly existences, imbuing it with a sordid appeal that could only come from a distinctive creator like Tom Waits.

Yet despite the positive lyrical content, Mule Variations contains plenty of painful, remorseful moments. The despairing blues and small, clanky, haphazard percussion sounds that recall the rolling din of Bone Machine on “Lowside of the Road” provide a forlorn atmosphere. Sonically, it depicts a deep depression. Lyrically, it’s about being downtrodden, hopeless, and alone. A tearful ballad, “Georgia Lee”, is about a girl found dead, and no attempt made to find the murderer is full of heavy sorrow. Waits has always been good at tapping into feelings of misery, regret, and desolation, and here, he reveals a profound sense of grief that only an honest empathizer could feel.

Further rounding out Waits’ swirl of emotions is his dark yet comical lyrical content. His poetic and narrative sensibilities persist through fine details of unusual, often grimy, or unsavory images. Through a higher-pitched screech rather than lower-registered growls, these songs are somewhat impetuous and disorderly. Still, they display Tom Waits’ roguishly poetic side, a side of him that will never wane. He has a knack for using imagery to illustrate emotions. “Big in Japan”, featuring members of Primus, carries a sense of incompleteness and accepting faults as an undeniable reality. Going along with the downtrodden characterization, the images in his one-liners are funny in how cute yet undignified they seem: “I got the powder, but not the gun / I got the dog, but not the bun / I got the clouds, but not the sky / I got the stripes, but not the tie.” All of these images illustrate his shortcomings despite the fact that Waits is famous in a foreign country.

His unique, somewhat deranged sense of humor comes through in songs like “Chocolate Jesus”, about the curious perspective of someone with a religious love of chocolate, and “Filipino Box Spring Hog”, about roasting a pig on top of a stripped box spring over a fire with his wife, both of them half-naked. Waits shows his affinity for portraying an endearing quality to things that are janky, run-down, shoddy, and considerably unkempt and lame. Songs like these are motivated by energy, excitement, and madness. “What’s He Building?” is a wonderfully spooky spoken word track illustrating the fear and paranoia of your neighbor. Delivered in a deliberately paced, hush-hush, between-you-and-me tone, it attempts to see through a distant person’s privacy as if peering through blinds in a room with the lights turned off to observe and investigate them. Tracks like this are a strong reason why Tom Waits is an accomplished musician as well as a memorable, entertaining poet and storyteller.

Mule Variations is easily one of his bluesiest albums and possibly one of his most accessible. After decades of experience concocting Delta blues songs, his execution of this kind of blues is perfect in songs like the brooding “Get Behind the Mule”, the blues standard-esque “Cold Water”, the weary pace of “Black Market Baby”, and the rhythmically twitchy “Eyeball Kid”. It also includes a few heartland rock ballads, such as “House Where Nobody Lives”, “Pony”, and the sole single “Hold On”, returning Waits to the folk rock, Americana roots of his earliest albums. The closing track, “Come on Up to the House,” is one of Waits’ most covered songs, reinterpreted by American folk band Joseph for Come on Up to the House: Women Sing Waits, while other songs from Mule Variations are covered by Aimee Mann, Phoebe Bridgers, and Iris DeMent for the same album. The song was even covered by Willie Nelson, Lukas Nelson, and Sheryl Crow for Nelson’s 2012 album Heroes.

Mule Variations is arguably Tom Waits’ most mature album, released towards the end of his prime as a recording artist. In Waits’ signature noir fashion, Mule Variations is infused with more hope than the rest of his discography, with less of a late-night diner atmosphere and more of a humble, small-town feel. Perhaps the modest nature of this album reflects Waits’ settled state of mind, which ostensibly comes with reaching the age of 50 and mulling over and processing past experiences, finding meaning in them, and using that meaning to string together stories and poems within songs. It’s the kind of thing that Waits and Brennan would do when writing an album or maybe just to pass the time inventively. Mule Variations is nothing less than a Tom Waits album that’s as emotionally stirring, entertaining, and full of life as any other.


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