The Phantom Tollbooth

Mule Variations
Artist: Tom Waits
Label: Anti-/Epitaph Records
Time: 16 tracks/70:32 minutes

One listen to any Tom Waits album recorded in the last fifteen years will not reveal that he came out of the same L.A. singer-songwriter scene that spawned Carly Simon and Jackson Browne. Although he never displayed any Top 40 ambitions in the 70's, he at least seemed comprehensible. For most of his career, however, Waits has trod down his own jagged musical path, going out of his way to mix melody with noise; ignoring any notion that he should try scoring a hit. Not that he needs to record a hit himself. Rod Stewart ("Downtown Train") and Johnny Cash ("Down There by the Train") are among the artists who have covered his songs, proving he is adored by his peers, if not the public.

His new album, Mule Variations, probably won't change anything. While one track, "Hold On," has received a little bit of radio airplay, the rest of the disc is still full of industrial clatter and junkyard blues. But don't let that keep you from listening. Waits is an outstanding songwriter, with topnotch musicians playing for him, including Primus, Charlie Musselwhite, and Beck sideman Smokey Hormel.

So how does all this sound? "Take It with Me" is a cabaret-style ballad, and "Cold Water" has the feel of some old blues musicians getting together to jam in a barn. Other tracks get more experimental. "Lowside of the Road" sounds like an Alan Lomax recording of a lazy pig farmer with an acoustic guitar and a defective drum machine. "What's He Building?" is one of Waits' trademark monologues, voicing a man's suspicions towards one of his loner neighbors. The mysterious "sounds" coming from the neighbor's house are provided by DJ M. Mark "The III Media" Reitman and percussionist Jeff Sloan.

Don't, however, let the cacophony distract you from the album as a whole. Waits's songs have a distinctive voice and unusual characters. Consider the plight of the "Eyeball Kid," a sideshow freak with a desire for fame. Despite being just a great, big eye, his parents own a "curio museum" and take great pride in showing off their "show biz child" to adoring gawkers. "Black Market Baby" is a cautionary tale of a seductive woman who would prefer not to improve her life. "Filipino Box Spring Hog" is, apparently, just a great cook-off of a smelly beast, complete with jealous onlookers.

Then there is "Georgia Lee," a tale of a murdered teenage girl with a troubling chorus:

    Why wasn't God watching?
    Why wasn't God listening?
    Why wasn't God there for Georgia Lee?

It would be easy to say that Waits has a skeptical, contentious outlook towards God, but I'm not so sure. Although "Georgia Lee" is from the point-of-view of someone questioning God, the context of the rest of the album suggests a great deal more ambiguity. "Chocolate Jesus" is about a boy who would rather eat a candy savior than learn about the real one:

    Well it's got to be a chocolate Jesus
    Make me feel good inside
    Got to be a chocolate Jesus
    Keep me satisfied

Here Waits seems to criticize those looking to religion solely to satisfy the senses and emotions. The album's closer, "Come On Up to the House," has a gospel-influenced invitation to church:

    All your cryin'' don't do no good
    Come on up to the house
    Come down off the cross
    We can use the wood
    Come on up to the house

Waits has never professed to be a Christian, but there is a knowledge of redemption here that cannot be denied. Although the Beat movement was an early influence on Waits, Flannery O'Connor seems to be the literary touchstone for these uncompromising tales of doubt and deliverance.

Mule Variations is not for everyone. Waits's music is so raw and varied that it takes some time to get used to him. First-time listeners will also find themselves alarmed by his harsh voice ("raspy" is an understatement this guy sounds like he gargles shards of glass every morning). Still, fans of Sixteen Horsepower and the Danielson Familie will dig this, if they don't already know about it. Anyone else up to the challenge will have an ear-tickling, faith-stretching experience. The musically adventurous should not pass this up.

Tommy Jolly   (8/6/99)