Tom Waits – Mule Variations

This is a perfect Sunday album, hence my choice to post it for today. It is its own kind of religious experience.

I’m pretty sure, as I write this post, that it’s going to draw a lot of comments. Tom Waits’ fans are fiercely loyal. They are protective. They are legion.

When I first heard Tom Waits, it was through my lovely wife (who was, at the time, my girlfriend. She was living in Toronto, I was living in Waterloo). She loves Waits, and loaned me Beautiful Maladies, which is a 23-track Hits collection from his years on Island Records. The first time I played that disc, the overriding thought in my head was “What the FUCK is THIS?” There were elements of it to which I took right away. But it jangled and clunked loosely when my ear was expecting the opposite. I know now that it’s all deliberate, and masterfully so, but at the time I was thrown. And his vocals… I did not get to it immediately. But I plugged on. I played it often in the time I had that disc on loan, and it grew on me. I went a long way down a dusty, inimitable road from first listen to when I returned that disc.

At the time, I talked with my lovely wife on the phone about it. She educated me a bit on Tom. You could even say that loaning me that disc might have been a bit of a relationship test. She wouldn’t have dumped me if I’d outright hated it, not even close, but it told her a bit about me. It was a challenge in its own way and, after sixteen years together, I’m proud to say I passed.

[UPDATE: I just asked her about all of this now, and she said loaning me that disc wasn’t a test. However, apparently if I’d said I hated Leonard Cohen’s work, she’d probably have kicked me to the curb. Haha, whew! Fortunately, I was already a long-time fan.]

Anyway. A few short months later, summer of 1999, we were in Sam The Record Man (R.I.P. Sam’s), and she saw Mule Variations in the New Release racks. She picked it up, stared at it for a while as though she might absorb it through osmosis, said how much she’d love to hear it, then put it back on the shelf. Being a graduate student on loans meant not always being able to drop cash on a disc. However, her boyfriend had a good job, and when she walked on, leaving the disc behind, I picked it back up and held it in my hand the rest of the time we were there, out of her sight. I found another disc for myself, and paid for both on our way out. When we got to the street, I handed her the Tom. She hadn’t noticed a thing.

In fact, Sam’s had had most of Tom’s albums for $5 each all summer, so every weekend that I went to visit her, she had to work a few hours on the Sunday. I’d walk around, see the sights while I waited for her… and I’d pick up a Waits album or two, hide them in the trunk. Eventually, I had them all. She got the whole discography for Christmas. Oh yes. Good ahead and tell me I ain’t a romantic.

Of course, Mule Variations is a fucking masterpiece. If you own it, chances are great you love it. So you can probably skip the rest of this post, though I’d be happy if you stayed. But if you haven’t reached this record in your listening experiences yet, now is the time. Read on. Then go buy the thing. Here’s why:

Big In Japan was a single, and what a track. I remember reading somewhere that that intro is a looped snippet of a recording of Tom destroying a bedroom dresser. And away we go. This track has a great and crazy funk groove and a menacing crash bang boom to it. You know it well.  [NB. He was also apparently Big In Norway, where this album charted at #1.]

Low Side Of the Road is an atmospheric slow blues bluegrass seether, with breathy sax. If ever a song sounded like a sepia tone picture, this one is it.

Hold On was also a single, and it’s a gorgeous shuffling dance song with a great story. Love it so much, I taught myself to play it on guitar.

Get Behind The Mule is one of my album favourites. I love it stem to gudgeon. It’s bluesy, dusty, and just grand. ‘Stirrin’ my brandy with a nail,’ indeed!

House Where Nobody Lives is a sad relationship song, where the house is also a victim. This song has the potential to choke you up, even if you’ve heard it a thousand times (like me).

Cold Water is a clunky guitar stabbing cowbell track that sounds like it ought to fall apart at any moment. It’s the song equivalent of a dunken jakey sidewalk shuffle. Brilliant! And that guitar solo… Holy shit. Slinky messy gritty bliss.

Pony’s gorgeous banjo/guitar/organ balladry is proof that only Waits can do such a thing and make it this goddamn good.

What’s He Building? is the only extraneous track here. My lovely wife loves it. Me? I think it’s OK, but it totally disrupts the flow of the record. Maybe tack it on as a hidden bonus track, but don’t break up the record with junk like this.

Black Market Baby is the perfect slinky, vinyl scratchy soundtrack to a drunken private eye film noir. ‘She’s a diamond that wants to stay coal.’ Oh man.

Eyeball Kid is another clunky oddball chanter that plays as peformance theater, right down to somebody smacking on a steel pipe.

Picture In A Frame is another one of those songs that just sticks with you for the rest of your life. It’s a simple piano ballad with backbone bass, but it’s so achingly gorgeous. I LOVE IT. Back when we used to go see the Knox Acoustic Cafe shows, several of the artists covered this song. Hell, I taught myself to play it on guitar, too. It’s fucking brilliant.

Chocolate Jesus is a banjo bass tambourine plunker with the occasional rooster crowing thrown in. Cool track with a freaking great harmonica solo.

Georgia Lee is an absolutely wrenching song. I have a hard time hearing this song every time it comes on, and I’ve heard this record so often you’d think I’d get over it. I can’t.

Filipino Box Spring Hog is another bluesy clunky Waits stomper that sounds so simple but, of course, it never is. Love his vocals here, and that harp again too.

Take It With me is a simply gorgeous piano ballad. It’s almost whispered. Damn.

Come On Up To The House swings, plods, and reminds us, in closing, that this album has been a religious experience. Not necessarily a conversion, but the gospel of Tom has been heard and he has looked upon it and saw it was good. It’s a life philosophy song, the perfect exit to the album. ‘All your cryin’ don’t do no good,… Come down off the cross, we can use the wood…” Can I get a hallelujah and an amen? Hell yes.

In sum:

If you own this, you already know. Carry on as you were.

If you do not own this, it’s OK. Don’t feel bad. But go buy this. NOW. I don’t often tell you that your life is incomplete without an album. I prefer to let people choose what they will hear. But this one is non-negotiable. Go. Go! GO!


BONUS #1: There were two extra tracks for this record. Buzz Fledderjohn, and Big Face Money, both of which appeared on the Australia, New Zealand and Japanese releases. These tracks later appeared on the Hold On singles, domestically, and we have those here at the house too. Some day I’ll write that up, as well.

BONUS #2: This album won a Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Folk Album, and was nominated for Best Male Rock Vocal Performance, the latter of which I’m sure Waits found fairly amusing.


Posted on September 13, 2014, in posts by aaron and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. 9 Comments.

  1. Utterly wonderful album and I listen to this regularly. So scatter-shot random yet simultaneously concise and consistent (how does that even work!? Does that even make sense!?).

    I’ve also bought this a few times as a gift for folks alongside Bone Machine. It’s a must have.


  2. I’ve not listened to this one a huge amount, not sure why, it’s a good one, less dense than Real Gone.


    • I might even argue it’s the accessible pivot between his (admittedly) weirder 80s stuff and his (admittedly) weirder 00s stuff. Just never know what you’re gonna get from him, but this one just clicks on all tracks but one. I still strongly dislike that What’s He Building? song’s placement.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I LOVE this album. I have it on Japanese import with two bonus tracks.

    Having said that, I would have bought this album even if I didn’t love it, just to make sure I had What’s He Building!


  4. Also, I used Big in Japan on my third Transformers stop motion animated movie! (They were, after all, Big in Japan, but the music fit perfectly with the scene.)


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