Sewers of Budapest

An innovation on Mule Variations is the employment of a turntable artist, who as it turns out is so discreet you hardly notice, except on "Eyeball Kid," which makes brilliantly apposite use of a sampled gospel choir and Balinese ketjak chanters (one of whom sounds remarkably like a tobacco auctioneer). Another innovation is a major paring-down of lyrics. Where formerly Waits might knot together strings of lexemes ("Put a hi ball in the crank case/Nail a crow to the door/Get a bottle for the jockey/gimme a 294/There's a 750 Norton bustin' out January's door...") that could sound like the collected dialogue from a dozen American International pictures passed through a Vegematic, there's a new restraint and purposefulness here that is perhaps attributable to the growing collaborative presence of Kathleen Brennan, Waits's wife, who cowrote 12 out of the 18 songs. After all, she's responsible for the chorus of "Black Market Baby": "She's a diamond that wants to stay coal"—the single best line on the disc.

Mule Variations finds Waits in a more rural mood than he's previously been, although you wouldn't exactly call it mellow. The change is subtle, in any case, because there are as many crazed rants and dream sequences and paranoid vignettes as ever—there's just a more tangible smell of soil. It's always hard to review a new Waits record hot off the truck, because the kick-in time of its component songs can be so delayed that the tune you barely notice now may turn out to be your favorite in 2007. (Kick-in time has not received its due from popular-music scholars; for purposes of comparison, my all-time champ is Love's Forever Changes, whose songs didn't finish kicking in until 23 years after purchase.) The current leading con tenders on this item are the aforementioned "Eyeball Kid," "Georgia Lee" (a murder ballad that sounds like an illegitimate offspring of the Irish Christmas carol "The Holly and the Ivy"), "Hold On" (a cover magnet in the grand tradition), "Come On up to the House" (a natural for gospel out fits, who however will have to omit the line "Come down off the cross/We can use the wood"), and "Cold Water" (might have been dictated by Leadbelly via Ouija board). Right now, Mule Variations sounds like a rock-solid Waits outing with less angst and more roots and few huge surprises, but that last phrase is subject to change.
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