After six years of silence, Tom Waits has finally released a new album. Mule Variations, consisting of 16 new songs, is certainly not a disappointment. Waits manages to incorporate some of the best elements of his earlier works on every track. Equally represented are the tender and aggressive moments that we came to love and respect in his earlier albums. "Big in Japan" starts off the album as a perfect example of his agressive rhythms, while "Take it with me" will drag your heart through a briar patch.
Waits began his career with a compelling singing voice. Over the years, smoking and drinking took their toll and Waits gained a reputation for his raspy, virtual growl of a voice. This album presents a final mastery of control over his unique singing style which quickly became his signature.
If you are looking for a radical new language on Mule Variations, you will be disappointed. Waits does not deviate from his established vocabulary but he speaks with a more experienced tongue. Now he knows where to hold back and where to give it his all. While previous albums may have taken multiple listenings to appreciate, Mule Variations has an instantaneous impact. This is, perhaps, caused by his use of familiar chords and melodies but there are undoubtedly new influences present. For example, the use of guest DJ M. Mark "The III Media" Reitman shows that he is still exploring new terrain. Other guests include Les Claypool and Larry LaLonde from Primus as well as John Hammond and Charlie Musselwhite.
What's he building? is by far the most eccentric song on the album. It is reminiscent of many of his spoken word compositions, such as "The Ocean doesn't want me" from the album Bone Machine. This song evokes a mood that is both mysterious and disturbing. For Tom Waits fans this album is essential; for those less familiar with his work this is a great chance to get to know one of the best song writers alive today. I'll tell you one thing, he is not building a playhouse for the children.
Copyright © 1999, The Oberlin Review.
Volume 127, Number 22, April 30, 1999
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