By James Calemine
Mule Variations contends as one of Tom Waits’ finest albums. Recorded in a converted northern California chicken coop–Prairie Sun Recording Studios–these 16 songs are steeped in country-blues music. Released in 1999, the band on Mule Variations consisted of Waits, Charlie Musselwhite, Smokey Hormel, Les Claypool, Ralph Carney, Greg Cohen, Marc Ribot, Larry Taylor, and John Hammond. Four of these songs Waits wrote alone; the rest he collaborated on with his wife Kathleen Brennan.
“Big In Japan” kicks off Mule Variations with a wicked grin in the lyrics: “I got the style, but not the grace/I got the clothes, but not the face/I got the bread, but not the butter/I got the window, but not the shutter…But I’m big in Japan.” “Lowside of the Road” contains a percussive element that resembles hoofs on a cobblestone road as Waits sings: “Jezebel is naked with an axe/The prosecution tells you to relax/Your head feels like it’s ready to explode/You’re rollin’ over, you’re rollin over to the lowside of the road.”
“Hold On” counts as one of the prettiest ballads on Mule Variations. It’s a classic song of hope. The idea for the blues ditty “Get Behind the Mule” came from a quote by Robert Johnson’s father who said of the legendary guitarist: “The trouble with Robert is, he wouldn’t get behind the mule in the morning and plough.”
The backwoods gospel of “The House Where Nobody Lives” represents songwriting at its finest. “Cold Water” evokes previous collaborations with Keith Richards from the gritty guitar riff, and lowdown lyrics: “Blind or crippled/Sharp or dull/I’m reading the Bible by a 40 watt bulb/What price freedom, dirt is my rug/Well I sleep like a baby with the snakes in the mud.” “Pony”, another Delta-blues-based composition, almost kicks up dust when you hear Waits sing: “I walked from Natchez to Hushpuckena/I built a fire by the side of the road/I worked for nothin’ in a Belzoni saw mill.”
“What’s He Building In There” is a wonderful spoken word piece that transports one back to Waits albums Rain Dogs and Swordfishtrombones. “Black Market Baby” evokes an eerie musical circus, and the lyric “There’s amnesia in her kiss” indicates there’s a dark side to this song’s soul. “Eyeball Kid” fits the sequence well, considering the previous two tracks. “Eyeball Kid” emerges as an funhouse mirror tune reflecting on show business. “Picture In A Frame” is a beautiful piano ballad that really resonates as far as love songs go…it’s a real tear-jerker, if your heart’s in the right place.
Charlie Musselwhite’s harmonica-playing on “Chocolate Jesus” (not to mention the roosters in the background) contributes an element that makes this tune sound like it belongs on an old Library of Congress recording. “Georgia Lee” is a ballad about a young black girl that was murdered in northern California. “Filipino Box Spring Hog”–a hallucinatory blues number–contains clever wordplay regarding a barbecue.
“Take It With Me”, another piano ballad, retains a timeless quality that may have just as well fit on the Waits soundtrack for Francis Ford Coppola’s film One From The Heart. Waits sounds like a wise street preacher on the album’s final track, “Come On Up To The House”. Mule Variations contains pure originality…
Read about Tom Waits and Charlie Musselwhite in Insured Beyond The Grave Vol. 2.