Welcome to the latest edition of ‘Golden Vault’, where we delve into the annals of music to bring you a classic album. You’ll know some like the back of your hand and nothing of others. We hope to get you reacquainted with old friends and create new favourites. The album to be taken out of the Golden Vault for reappraisal this week is ‘Mule Variations’ by Tom Waits.
First impressions can be difficult to rise above, and even twenty-five years into his career journalists and critics still regarded Tom Waits through glasses shaped like the word “hobo”. But by the time ‘Mule Variations’ was released in 1999, Waits was no longer the bar-hopping piano-jabbing troubadour of ‘Heart of Saturday Night’ singing neon-tinged abstractions of Irving Berlin numbers with a half-smoked cigarette on his lips and a tattered Kerouac in his breast-pocket.
Nor was he donning his mad circus ringleader’s cap, conducting armies of primal percussions and rusty strings and squeezeboxes into the sadomasochistic cacophonies of ‘Rain Dogs’. The Waits of ‘Mule Variations’ is a forty-nine year old man, married with three kids, no longer drinking or smoking, standing repentantly at the door of some wooden church in the American Mid-West with dust on his shoes and fiddling with the brim of his hat as the gospel choir sings the songs that have been sung in that church for a hundred and fifty years. The Tom Waits of ‘Mule Variations’ has seen what the world has to offer, and has decided it’s time to come home.
For a listener ‘Mule Variations’ first comes to you like an unkempt man getting on the bus, who you spot and hope doesn’t sit next to you, but he inevitably does. You hear ‘Mule Variations’ at first and think there’s nothing special here; in fact you’re agitated by the amount of effort you have to put in for such a minimal return. But then you realise the album’s not expecting anything of you. You don’t need to make eye-contact with it as it speaks, or nod your head feigning understanding. If you close your eyes and lean back in your seat it will continue talking its strangely familiar talk, and eventually you’ll realise how attentively you’re listening, that you want to hear more, and that every time the bus pulls up to its next stop you’re secretly hoping the album’s not going stand up, say its farewells and disappear forever.
There is a conceptual trajectory present between the basic primitivism of 1992’s ‘Bone Machine’ and the sound of ‘Mule Variations’. But while it was the prominence of unusual percussion that dominated the former album here it is largely the sounds of guitar and piano that make up the tones and musical textures of the record. Coming back from his wild adventures in the world of organic sounds, loaded down by the queer-looking bric-a-brac he amassed on his journey, Waits is here bending down to pick up the forgotten instruments of his forbears – the resonator guitar lying on the side of a dirt road, the piano in the corner of some abandoned honky-tonk and the electric harmonica plugged into an overloaded amplifier – and putting them stage-front. It’s a batch of gumbo made from the traditional recipe of bluegrass, gospel and blues mixed with Waits’s own special secret ingredient, and the result is special.
The album opens with the madhouse thumping of Big In Japan, Waits’s ode to his own marginal success, and one of the few tracks on the album to musically push things into the realm of the high-octane and the frightening. Eyeball Kid and Filipino Box Spring Hog are songs in this vein, featuring the kinds of musical arrangements that make you want to look over your shoulder in case some maniac is standing there about to throw a bag of rubbish at you. But what sets them apart from the Waits of yore who travelled to Singapore on pirate ships or screamed about the terrors of the dying earth, these songs are written from a safe and familiar place, despite the outlandishness of the music. Eyeball Kid is a bit of comic book-style surreal autobiography while Filipino Box Spring Hog was written by a flaming grill in Waits’s back garden, neither song glimpsing into the underbelly of the world as so many tracks of his have before.
In the full scale of the album, these tracks are only there to inject a bit of adrenaline, because what ‘Mule Variations’ ends up being is a triumphant return to the world of balladry. But like the upbeat numbers these are not the travelogues of ‘Closing Time’ or ‘Blue Valentine’. They range from the fireside storytelling of hard travelling long ago found on Pony to the domestic pondering of House Where Nobody Lives, a song written like the train-of-thought of a man who dutifully passes the song’s vacant house every day to fulfil the daily chores of a settled life. That it’s the familiar voice of Tom Waits singing these songs largely masks the fact that they are written with an almost middle-class sensibility, particularly songs like Chocolate Jesus, an indictment of the faux-religiosity of middle America and the ballad Georgia Lee, an emotional lament for the death of a poor girl whose tragedy seems far removed from that of the singer.
If there is a civilising influence over ‘Mule Variations’ compared with Waits’ earlier output then the person responsible must be Kathleen Brennan. This is not to say that Waits’s wife managed to tame this musical beast – or even attempted to, she was after all the one who introduced him to Captain Beefheart and instigated the mad whirlwind that made up his post-1980 output – but having co-written twelve of the album’s sixteen tracks, it’s no wonder the longing for the strange and despicable is largely absent here. Even the glint of nostalgia in Pony and Cold Water for the vagabond life is countered by a feeling of contentment in being able to look back on those days from a comfortable vantage point.
Waits and Brennan first met on the set of the Francis Ford Coppola film One From the Heart and every interview he’s given since that meeting shows him to be a mellower man than he was in ’70s, always restless and twitching and looking for an ashtray. The madness in his music from ‘Swordfishtrombone’ on is the manic markings on the wall of a man who is in shock at having found someone who understands what he wants and is able to give him the tools and support to go after it. ‘Mule Variations’ is this same man finally coming to realise that this influence on his life is not a hallucination or a temporary thing; it’s a stable existence. In other words the mad maestro of jazz music has not been intellectually tamed; he has just found what he has been searching for and entered a period of emotional calm.
The final two tracks on ‘Mule Variations’ are the most revealing. The penultimate Take It With Me is about as intimate in terms of both composition and recording as Waits has ever been, to the point that you can even hear him scratching his stubble as the song’s ending notes ring out. As he plays out the melody on the piano accompanied only by a bass, the words he sings contrast the stoic optimism of Cold Water’s “there ain’t nuthin’ sweeter than a-ridin’ the rail”. Travelling in this song is seen as a time of separation as the singer’s thoughts float back to the home he leaves behind. The line “All broken down/by the side of the road/I was never more alive/or alone” is followed shortly by a vivid evocation of the home “Children are playing/the end of the day/Strangers are singing/on our lawn/There’s got to be more/than flesh and bone/All that you’ve loved/is all you own”. In the final verse he geographically zeroes in on his greatest desire with a touching forthrightness; a moment of emotional sincerity that is rare in the wry and ironic songbook of Mister Waits.
This is followed by the crashing uplifting gospel of Come On Up To The House, Waits’s ultimate statement that those journalists’ hobo-shaped glasses can be smashed for good. His voice is at its most satisfying in this song, with the full throaty growl coming through loud and clear, but the lyrics show that Waits no longer sees himself the way he once was. Now it is he, with a complex understanding of the ugliness of the world, offering protection and a place by the fire to some lost soul wandering the streets in search of sympathy or fulfilment: “There’s no light in the tunnel/no irons in the fire/Come on up to the house/And you’re singing lead soprano/in a junk man’s choir/You got to come on up to the house”. It’s the final word of a man who has come in from the cold but still feels its bite when he looks out the window on a rainy night, remembering those flea-ridden motel mattresses, ready to offer shelter to the vagabonds and freaks that once filled up his mind with insane ideas.
Despite all this ‘Mule Variations’ is not a refutation of the years of hard-living and hard-drinking. It’s the acknowledgement of growing into middle age not in “the best” way but in the only way; alive. Waits’ idol Jack Kerouac died at the age of forty-seven, two years younger than Waits when he recorded ‘Mule Variations’ and it is the trajectory of that writer’s downfall that really informs the singer’s change of life. Waits and Kerouac shared a youthful obsession with the strange and wonderful people who wander the back alleys and side-streets of the big cities and run-down backwaters of the world, but Kerouac never came to terms with growing older. He became less enamoured with travelling and meeting people, sinking into funks of bitter drunken cynicism, cursing his friends and family and regretting his own iconic position. His mistreatment of the women in his life made him impossible to live with, which made him lonely, which made him drink more and eventually led to his death. Waits saw this tumble in his predecessor’s life and through either foresight or pure chance found himself in a stable existence. The idea of the artist needing struggle and misery to create is a fairly common conception, but if Waits proves anything with ‘Mule Variations’ it’s that outside of great suffering, great art can also come from great inner peace.
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