After cooling his heels for six years, Tom Waits has returned. If you care about the man’s last two decades of music, well, you’ll care about this album, too. But know this: Mule Variations (Anti/Epitaph), Mr. Waits’ latest meditation on whether a jukebox is sadder than a coffin, is no weird masterpiece like his mid-80’s work ( Swordfishtrombones , Raindogs , Franks Wild Years ), or even a great-sounding, Grammy-winning disk like 1992’s Bone Machine . It’s half wonderful, half so-so-kind of a glorious mess.
Which brings to mind the cheap conundrum, is the bottle half empty or half full? It depends on what’s in the bottle. (And how thirsty you are.) For one thing, the pacing of Mule Variations is all shot to hell. The first half of the album highlights two different styles of slow blues-songs in which Mr. Waits’ longstanding guitarist, Knitting Factory habitué Marc Ribot, solos, and other cuts in which his place is filled by DJ M. Mark (The III Media) Reitman on the turntable or Beck’s bandmate Smokey Hormel on something called the chumbus. The Ribot-less blues drag; the ones where he solos seethe with danger.
Now, all-shot-to-hell is pretty much Mr. Waits’ natural state; the Brokedown Sound is his métier. But the album’s momentum gets derailed. Take the little radio play (for want of a better word) called “What’s He Building?” in which Mr. Waits portrays a nosy neighbor postulating on what the guy across the street (a cross between the Unabomber and a Wisconsin cannibal) is “building in there.” It’s a great slice of paranoid Americana, but hearing it once is enough.
The back end of Mule Variations holds some of the most brilliantly whacked-out songs Mr. Waits has written in some time tucked in between simple piano ballads that hark back to his neo-beatnik lounge act days. But again, these ballads louse things up a bit. It doesn’t matter that Mr. Waits, in keeping with his avowedly Dada-esque soundscape, is playing an old upright piano with squeaky pedals; these numbers are too sentimental to stand alongside crazy-ass rants like “Eyeball Kid,” about some rug rat who’s nothing but a giant eyeball, and a ripsnorter like “Filipino Box Spring Hog,” concerning cooking pork on a mattress.
“Kathleen was sittin’ down/ In little red’s recovery room/ In her criminal underwear bra,” Mr. Waits growls. “I was naked to the waist/ With my fierce black hound/ And I’m cookin’ up a Filipino Box Spring Hog.” The Kathleen he’s referring to is his wife and songwriting partner, Kathleen Brennan, the Irish playwright and mother of their three children, Kellesimone, Casey (whom dad wanted to name “Senator”) and Sullivan. She teams with him on 12 out of the 16 songs on Mule Variations , though not the hog song, on which she opted instead to play a “boner.” It was Ms. Brennan who coaxed Mr. Waits to shelve his the-piano-has-been-drinking shtick back in 1983 and move more toward the lunatic fringe-to become a little more dangerous, musically speaking.
There is something dangerous about Mr. Waits’ mixture of sentimentality and Americana insanity. Nothing is sacred while everything remains sacred. On “Chocolate Jesus,” he sings as if the Son of Man was just another piece of junk food. “Well I don’t want no Abba Zabba,” he blurts after a real rooster crows in the studio, “Don’t want no Almond Joy … Got to be a chocolate Jesus/ Keep me satisfied.”
It’s not the first time he’s called upon the Lord. On Bone Machine , Mr. Waits sang “Jesus Gonna Be Here” in the voice of some old black gospel howler-a cynic might suggest that Mr. Waits’ whole act has been a rip-off of deep-water black blues-but the song followed such heathenish tracks that Jesus might as well have been a professional wrestler. Mr. Waits has always used Christ as a piece of cultural exotica, another insane metaphorical marimba to pound on. Mule Variations even closes on a prayerful note, though at some points Mr. Waits’ gallows humor peeks through the gloom enough to make you think he might just be parodying an old-time radio ad for a roadhouse. “Come On Up to the House” is a heartfelt piano hymn that asks, “Does life seem nasty, brutish and short? Come on up to the house.” The song is inspiring enough to be sung in church, though the quip “Come down off the cross/ We can use the wood” could cause some trouble with the priest.
Something Harold Bloom wrote about Macbeth in Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human resonates in Mr. Waits. Mr. Bloom points out that both Shakespeare and that “unlucky” play are simultaneously pagan (ignorant of Jesus) and post-Christian (Christianity as obsolete superstition). Mr. Waits sings about Jesus the same way, as if he were born beyond the reach of Rome and its missionaries. Once a mere entertainer oozing with “jitterbug boy” quasi-Kerouac numbers, he opened his 1983 transitional album Swordfishtrombones with a marimba-driven manifesto that announced, “There’s a world going on underground !” It sounded as if he had intimate knowledge of another hidden domain, both beneath and parallel to our world.
What has always unified Mr. Waits’ vision is his raw voice, its colorings so unique that in 1988 Frito-Lay hired some celebrity voice vampire to imitate him for a Doritos commercial. After Mr. Waits won $2.5 million in damages for the ignominy, he remarked, “Now by law I have what I always felt I had: a distinctive voice.”
Tom Waits has more than that, of course. He has an artistic vision that is brilliantly awry. But it’s a vision that’s so demanding, it’s getting harder and harder for him to top it without parodying himself. As it is, half of Mule Variations is marred by musical deadwood; but the other half is such a hoot, perhaps the only appropriate response is to get down on your haunches, tear off your shirt and howl like a “fierce black hound.”