It seems like a long time since old Pop Waits last came around here with his swaybacked horse and his peddler’s wagon, brightly colored gewgaws hanging off the sides, pots and pans clanging away, baskets crammed with novelty items,
labor-saving devices, and sentimental ballads. On his last trip he was ranting in a German ac cent, trying to sell us horsehair under pants and cast-iron nosegays, and while that (The Black Rider, 1993) was interesting, it will reassure his steady customers to know that Mule Variations conforms to the product line they’ve come to know and love.
That would be product line B, inaugurated in 1983 with Swordfish trombones. Line A, the original bill of goods, which covered the previous decade, featured the inevitable-seeming confluence of several archetypal streams (shoot the piano player, spontaneous bop prosody, America drinks and goes home, etc.), brownishly tinged with the period’s Elektra-
Asylum singer-songwriter shellac. Sword fishtrombones yanked the lounge shtick and the drunk jokes and opened up the territory with found percussion, surrealism, and a deeper range of Americana. The move may not have been quite as radical a shift as his record companies (before or after) seemed to believe, but among other accomplishments it brought Waits to the attention of listeners who (like your reviewer) ordinarily experience sinus problems when within range of a singer-songwriter.
In retrospect, you can see how Waits had to change gears just then. The Waits of the ’70s would have fit the ’80s all too well. The booze, the suits, the tail-fin Cadillacs with which he thumbed his nose at patchouli-infested California would a decade later attach themselves to an unforeseen regiment of Harry Connick Juniors marching forth from the frat houses to restore normalcy. This is not to say that Waits calculated his move; he just located and fleshed out his inner eccentric, taking as his patron saint the midcentury composer Harry Partch, who was an avant-gardist and a hobo, and who with his spectacularly oddball homemade instruments represents the grandest effusion of the American DIY ethos. Maybe Partch’s example showed Waits how contrariness could be a complete aesthetic, not limited to reacting against the current mood.
In any event, Waits blossomed in the mid 1980s. The trilogy of Sword fishtrombones, Rain Dogs (1985), and Franks Wild Years (1987) worked as sonic landscape, as theater, as narrative, and as a great bunch of songs. Waits seems to have set out, compass in hand, to find and stake the cardinal points of his personal terrain, in the process collecting and scrambling together what seems like every sort of music ever played in a bar in the 20th century. Country and western mated with French chantoozie stuff, which crossed with New Orleans jazz, which intersected with sea chanteys, and so on—this was all adult music; Waits’s jukebox never carried much youth culture. The surrealist mix’n’match produced results that were occasionally literal (“Ninth and Hennepin” merely superimposes Partch’s “The Street” on model-A Waits’s “Christmas Card From a Hooker in Minneapolis”), sometimes anthemically mainstream (such cover-version generators as “Downtown Train” and “Blind Love”), and often enough irreducible (“Tango ‘Til They’re Sore,” for example, which sounded immediately familiar without being reminiscent of any thing specific).
All the above examples come from Rain Dogs, an album that in some parallel world could have spun off seven or eight singles, but which recedes somewhat amid the torrent of greatest nonhits from 1983 through 1993 surveyed last year on Beautiful Maladies. It’s an anthology full of syncopation, oompah, metal pipes, under water noises, hurdy-gurdyish sonorities, perplexed nostalgia, rueful sentimentalism, battle-scarred innocence. Every song is a little movie triangulated from musical, lyrical, and atmospheric allusions all heading off in different directions. “Sixteen Shells From a Thirty-Ought Six,” for example, marries a prison-farm work song to lyrics that could be the work of some backwoods Hart Crane, with percussive hooks supplied by various auto parts; “Temptation” suggests a hybrid of “Suspicion” and the cartoon-snake-charmer standard “In a Persian Garden” warbled by an apostate muezzin in the drunk tank; “Jockey Full of Bourbon” stirs together nursery rhymes, surf guitar, bull whip percussion, and the ghost of “Hernando’s Hideaway.” Waits is an uncanny pastiche artist, even in a time when you can’t spit in a major city without hitting a pastiche artist. “Strange Weather” is the most convincing fake Kurt Weill song not writ ten by Hanns Eisler; “Innocent When You Dream” makes you want to hear the version that must have been re corded by the immortal Irish tenor John McCormack on an Edison cylinder in 1912.
The collection also delineates the 1001 uses to which Waits has put his patented gravel throat. It’s a bit like watching a really acrobatic fat man: you can’t quite believe that an attribute that ought to be a handicap can manage such agility. He can shout and moan and leer with it, but he can equally well use it to croon and trill and sigh, and his rare falsetto (“Temptation”) raises the fur on my dog’s neck. Over the years he’s put together a repertory company of sup porting musicians that can apparently produce any sort of texture; tell them “Christmas in the sewers of Budapest after the Martian invasion of 1962” and they’re there. Marc Ribot, Ralph Carney, et al. could probably sound like the Longines Symphonette if they set their minds to it.
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.