By Rick Reger
Twenty-five years ago, for his second album, The Heart of Saturday Night, Tom Waits wrote a song about “fumblin’ with the blues.” And though he’s since been acclaimed as a jazz raconteur, a Tin Pan Alley tunesmith for Skid Row, and a hobo sapient a la Harry Partch, both his fumbles and his successes have come out of a long, rambling sojourn to the blues’ brackish backcountry heart. With his long-awaited new Mule Variations, an extended suite of songs as spare, direct, and elemental as any in his catalog, he seems to have arrived.
Waits signaled his infatuation with the blues right from the start, but like a timid young suitor he did it from a safe distance, through its embodiment in jazz. His 1973 debut, Closing Time, contained a tune called “Virginia Avenue,” a bleary late-night N’awlins crawl swizzled together from a sliding, sloe-gin bass line, two crooked piano riffs, and some mumbly, muted trumpet.
Waits bellied up to the bar more boldly on The Heart of Saturday Night, and again on Nighthawks at the Diner in 1975. Tunes like “New Coat of Paint” and “Eggs and Sausage” were swanky small-combo strolls that sounded like they were lifted from jazz-blues fakebooks of the 50s. By the time Waits coughed up the twin monuments of his vagabond years, Small Change (1976) and Foreign Affairs (1977), he was actually calling what he did the blues: “Tom Traubert’s Blues,” “Invitation to the Blues.”
But it wasn’t. Waits wrote some great songs during this period, and the sound of his whetstone croak grating against a veil of strings and piano still induces shivers, but his music had become a stylized cocktail of bluesy jazz and pop. On Blue Valentine (1978) and Heartattack and Vine (1980) he tried again, his beatnik balladeer persona sharing headspace with a guitar-toting blues shouter. Working mostly with an amplified quartet, Waits laced both records with Chicago-style workouts. But aside from Waits’s signature rasp and seedy lyrics, there was little to distinguish tunes like “Romeo Is Bleeding” and “In Shades” from basic bar-band fare. Only the feral low-life howl “Downtown” felt authentic or original.
In 1983, with Swordfishtrombones, Waits came back from a three-year hiatus with a radically retooled sound that included avant-garde organ licks, bagpipes, and boo-bams and shifted from mutant cabaret to country rock to experimental chamber music at the drop of a hat. But he also took two giant strides deeper into the blues. The simmering straight-up “Gin Soaked Boy” could almost pass for a long-lost Howlin’ Wolf number, and the unforgettable “16 Shells From a Thirty-Ought Six” featured a revved-up Muddy Waters groove. On the subsequent Rain Dogs (1985), another stylistic smorgasbord, Waits went even further back with “Big Black Mariah” and “Gun Street Girl,” the latter a weather-beaten bit of Delta country-blues with Waits strumming arid, dirt-clod banjo chords to the skeletal accompaniment of an upright bass and what sounded like a hammered anvil.
Mule Variations, Waits’s first album under his new deal with punk indie Epitaph, is “Gun Street Girl” writ large–70 minutes large. It was recorded at a chicken ranch, albeit one in northern California, and the title is inspired by a quote attributed to Robert Johnson’s father: “Trouble with Robert is he wouldn’t get behind the mule in the morning and plow.”
But Mule Variations isn’t an attempt to merely mimic or pay tribute to the old masters. Waits, who cowrote the songs with his wife, playwright Kathleen Brennan, calls them “surrural,” as in surreal plus rural. They borrow the settings and raw performance style of old-time country blues, but the lyrics and ghostly ambience are clearly the product of Waits’s own experience of the crossroads. “I got the house but not the deed / I got the horn but not the reed / I got the cards but not the luck / I got the wheel but not the truck / But I’m big in Japan,” he growls on the opening track (which features a restrained Les Claypool on bass).
On “Lowside of the Road” he grinds out an ode to misfortune, hissing literary fragments like “Jezebel is naked with an ax / The prosecution tells you to relax.” The crusty accompaniment–which includes acoustic guitar, trumpet, what might be tissue paper and a comb, and “programming”–sounds like a juke-joint band bemoaning a collective hangover. “Get Behind the Mule” is a slow-burn back-roads lament that benefits from Smokey Hormel’s chipped electric-guitar licks and Charlie Musselwhite’s harp groans. “Chocolate Jesus” is a hardscrabble banjo blues accented simply by upright bass, harp, and rooster. Even “Pony,” a more typical homesick-wanderer ballad, is dominated by the clapboard colors of the Dobro, pump organ, and harmonica.
The old Waits resurfaces periodically: the LP includes four lovely, unadorned piano ballads, the most on any record since 1980. There’s also “What’s He Building?,” one of Waits’s patented creepy-funny narratives, muttered over percussion, reeds, and turntable; and the clanging junkyard-orchestra showcase “Eyeball Kid,” the tale of a circus freak (and a pointed send-up of the entertainment industry): “I know you can’t speak / I know you can’t sign / So cry right here / On the dotted line.”
But on Mule Variations, it’s hard not to notice that Waits’s old wanderer seems ready to give the dogs a rest. For a songwriter so closely identified with rootlessness, he makes a lot of allusions to home. The protagonist of “Pony” has “been everywhere in the whole wide world” and wants nothing more than to be “home in Evelyn’s kitchen / with old Gyp curled around my feet,” and “House Where Nobody Lives” is a lament for the abandoned house and the empty heart alike. “Georgia Lee” is a dirge for a girl who’s murdered after running away from home, and the album concludes with the raggedly jubilant gospel blues “Come On Up to the House,” where Waits bellows with born-again fervor, “Come on up to the house / Come on up to the house / The world is not my home / I’m just a passin’ through / Come on up to the house.” But while he may never be entirely at home in the world, he’s finally at home with the blues.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Anton Corbijn.