The Music Box's #4 album for 1999
First Appeared at The Music Box, January 2000, Volume 7, #1
Written by John Metzger
There is no question that Tom Waits' music is an acquired taste. His voice is raw and craggy, and his songs, while deeply rooted in old-time blues, stretch conventional boundaries and incorporate a surreal array of eerie sounds. The end result is something that can only be described as sonic performance art.
Yet, there is something about Waits' latest effort Mule Variations that slowly gets under your skin and keeps you coming back for more. Gradually he wears you down, and the things that at first confounded you into thinking this album was nothing more than an insane mish-mash of noise, begin to work their charms. Hold On and Take It with Me are two of these songs that crack open the door and draw you into the multi-textured edges of Mule Variations. On the former, Waits' voices takes on a Bruce Springsteen-like tonality as he instills in it the desperate need to survive one day at a time while offering up a glimmer of the hope that people hang onto against all odds. On the latter he perfectly captures the emotions of a person reflecting on an abandoned long-term relationship with such aching sadness and raw emotion that it's impossible not to be moved. Other highlights include the album's centerpiece What's He Building? — an experimental word jazz social commentary worthy of the genre's pioneer Ken Nordine; the opening Big in Japan — which puts Morphine's post-punk blend of rock and jazz through the shredder; and the religious rant Chocolate Jesus — a sparse, minimalist, back porch blues excursion.
Are you hooked yet? If not, keep listening because these songs need to ripen and age within you. When the emotions begin to flow, they quickly become overwhelming. You can almost smell the whiskey on Waits' breath as he sings lines like, "Why wasn't God watching?/Why wasn't God listening?/Why wasn't God there for Georgia Lee?," and damn, if that whiskey doesn't begin to smell good.
42nd Annual Grammy Award Winner:
Contemporary Folk Album
Of Further Interest...
Mule Variations is also available from Barnes & Noble.
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1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
Copyright © 1999 The Music Box