If Tom Waits hadn't released the stunning and remarkably varied Mule Variations in 1999, I don't think I would have ever found myself exploring his music so deeply, or ever found so many of the off-beat treasures and poetic screwball truths that flowed out like an unexpected drip from his rough growl of a voice and beatnik shuffle tunes. I'd be missing several favorite songs, I'd have likely bypassed all but his most obvious musical moments. I'd be left wondering what the big deal was when I heard his name. And I'd certainly have a clear head today, not lost in the anticipation of watching the man perform in El Paso on Friday.
Sometimes albums are released at the absolute perfect time in your life, when they can smack you in the face and shake up everything you thought you knew about music. They alter what you want from a song - deliver meaning when you wanted a beat, substitute truth for a good melody, or leave you staring at the horizon in confusion just a second after you thought you might be close to grasping what it all mean.
The most powerful albums in my life have almost always been the ones I caught on to when they were fresh, those new musical artifacts you get to ride as if they were waves, right at the same time everyone else in the world is listening. The new is what captivates the most. The new is what makes you feel like you're worthy of walking the hippest razor's edge you can find. The new is the powerful.
And Mule Variations is Waits returning with a new studio album after seven years. His 16th record was lagging a bit considering it was his 16th in 26 years, but as an established musician and cult favorite it really wasn't that long. So consider this as a comparison: Mule Variations was released the week I turned 20, more or less a good ways down my road to being a savvy music fan. But as a 13-year-old barely able to wrap his head around the emerging grunge trend, I wouldn't have had the slightest clue what to do with an album like Bone Machine.
But I was more-or-less equipped mentally to take in Mule Variations. And friends from all walks seemed to be finding it and sharing it in one big soupy mix of exploration. I was finding that folks who called their favorite bands Radiohead, Bob Dylan, B.B. King, the Magnetic Fields, Wilco, Bad Religion, Johnny Cash and Beck were all coming together over this new Tom Waits record. The agreement was notable enough in itself, but the fervor with which I was watching various friends recommend this new album was what drove me to join the club.
I was most immediately drawn to the ballads: "Hold On" is permanently the list of my five favorite songs - and "House Where Nobody Lives," "Pony" and "Picture in a Frame" were all immediate touchstones on that album. That reaction is fitting because as I've continued to dive into the man's intense and dense catalog for the last nine years (digging both proper albums and a good number of bootlegs), that early folk-jazz period is what I find most captivating. But Mule Variations is far from a pretty or precious album. Waits' ramshackle rythymic witchery just may be at the highest level he ever reached.
After all these years, what I like most about the album is how it makes such a strong statement in favor of all the different paths his career has taken over nearly 30 years. Mule Variations represents everything that Tom Waits does well - from the heart-broken troubadour stuff to his so-called junkyard orchestra. He's a madman and an oracle, running through 16 songs, half of which you could dance to with your grandmother and half of which make you shake with fear.
I'm sure 99 percent of the people who ever wrote a song would rest their heads with pride and glory to have Mule Variations as a greatest hits collection. And the record could certainly stand as a greatest hits for Waits, if anyone is reductive enough to take it as such. It's certainly one of my all-time top 10 albums, but more than that, it was a springboard for me into a fascinating and rewarding catalog of albums that I'll almost certainly continue absorbing over decades rather than years.
And I can't say enough great things about the VH1 Storytellers show Waits performed in connection with the Mule Variations release. It is without a doubt among the top handful of concert recordings I have ever heard. The songs, the stories, the overall performance and the recording quality are all A+ material. So give it a few good listens, and let's all just thank the man for writing and singing songs for all these years...
Tom Waits - Picture in a Frame (live Storytellers)
Tom Waits - VH1 Storytellers 1999 (zip file)