Mule Variations sounds like it goes on forever, one song leading into the next until the album echoes into tomorrow, then the day after the day after the day after. So much music, so many rickety sounds, so many beautiful notes piled upon what-the-hell's-that? noise, so many throwaway jokes commingled with half-buried regrets--seems the character has become the creator, the punch line the point. The record begins with a rumble and fades in an amen, and in between are emotions enough to last through a hundred listens. Waits is no longer a wanna-Beat but the real thing, a guy who's seen enough to make it all clear to the outsider; come and meet the "Black Market Baby" in the house way back off the road, send your prayers to the "Chocolate Jesus" who makes you feel good inside.
First thing, you hear the sound of Tom Waits beating the holy mother out of a chest of drawers forever ago during a trip to Mexico, a kerrang he captured on tape and waited for just the right moment to use. This was just as good a time as any, the introduction to his first proper record since 1992's Bone Machine, itself the most raucous, joyous record ever made about death. How better to say hello after all these years than by stumbling into a room, the reformed drunk who barges his way back and demands to be noticed? The song itself may not be the most prescient thing Waits ever wrote--he's "Big in Japan," but so's Brave Combo--but at least he hasn't lost his sense of humor.
Already the diehards insist this ain't Rain Dogs, like it even matters anymore. That record's a weird beauty from start to finish, all nerve and jitters, the sound of a reformed beatnik troubadour coming to grips with a new sound, a new vibe, tension instead of teardrops--and Keith Richards, to boot. But Mule Variations is damned near as good, as unexpected (despite its sort-of familiarity), as impatient, as revelatory; in fact, it gets better with every listen, its best moments hidden between the cracks. The man still sings like a storyteller (through a voice made of smoke and broken mirrors), still writes blues as though they were lullabies ("Cold Water"), still lets his piano do all the drinking ("Georgia Lee," which might as well have been on Foreign Affairs).
Waits writes grand weepers and grim weepers, as wife and co-writer-producer Kathleen Brennan insists, and they're all here, from the edgy rent-is-due throwdown of "Filipino Box Spring Hog" to the bitter, lonely lament of "House Where Nobody Lives" to the back-porch-broken-string blues of "Get Behind the Blues." And there's even a single: "Hold On," yet another whispered Waits ballad so glorious, Rod Stewart couldn't fuck it up. But he'll probably try.