Does life seem nasty, brutish and short? Tom Waits certainly appeared to feel that way on 1992’s Bone Machine, an almost unrelievedly stark and grim meditation on death that piled up critical accolades even as it struck many longtime fans as a creative dead-end. For years Waits had been experimenting with increasingly clanging furor, adding layers of percussion and found noises to the surreal soundscapes of his classic mid-80’s trilogy (Swordfishtrombones, Rain Dogs and Franks Wild Years). With Bone Machine, almost nothing remained but the relentless industrial pounding of such doomsday lullabies as "In the Colosseum" and "Dirt in the Ground." And after that — silence. For nearly seven years, no new Waits albums appeared, save a dissonant collection of showtunes from his theatrical collaboration with Robert Wilson, The Black Rider.
What makes his return with this year’s Mule Variations (Epitaph Records) all the more triumphant is the sense of an artist coming full circle by integrating his more extreme sonic innovations with richly crafted songwriting and adding a little dash of hope to the proceedings. Thus, Waits’ millennial message is not the apocalyptic nihilism of the previous record’s "Earth Died Screaming" (as fantastic a song as it is), but the stirring gospel-flecked transcendence of the album-closing "Come on up to the House." It may be the single greatest thing he’s ever done — a truly openhearted anthem that sounds like a classic on the first listening.
While the occasional track on Mule Variations may sound familiar — the heart-wrenching ballad "Hold On" would have fit in nicely on Rain Dogs, and "What’s He Building?" makes a suitably paranoid companion piece to a prior spoken-word transmission from the Twilight Zone, "The Ocean Doesn’t Want Me" — Waits is really mining new territory here. Writing once again with his wife Kathleen Brennan, he has retooled his Skid Row persona and given him a ticket out of town. This year’s model is a campfire-and-Backwoods-Smokes bluesman heading down the low side of the road, past the house where nobody lives, and hoping his pony knows the way back home. Gone, for the most part, are the dark carnival organs and clattering pots and pans of yore, replaced with hissing, buzzing guitars, squeaking piano pedals and the occasional crowing rooster. This rustic musical setting meshes perfectly with the singer’s notorious gravel-road voice, never in finer form than on the tightly coiled blues of "Get Behind the Mule" and the raucous hobo hoot "Cold Water" (a song the Rolling Stones should study carefully if they ever decide to get serious about music again).
Though more ballad heavy than usual (tracks like "Picture in a Frame" and "House Where Nobody Lives" teeter on the brink of sentimentality without ever tumbling over), the new album allows ample breathing room for Waits’ mad scientist impulses. While "Eyeball Kid" comes off as a somewhat strained sideshow attraction, the one-of-a-kind "Filipino Box Spring Hog" is a gonzo masterpiece, evoking a psychedelic rent party with a most unusual menu ("Kathleen was sitting down in Little Red’s recovery room/In her criminal underwear bra/I was naked to the waist with my fierce black hound/And I’m cooking up a Filipino Box Spring Hog"). Even the outtakes from Mule Variations are first rate: "Buzz Fledderjohn", available only on import editions of the album, is a spooky ode to a neighbor’s yard, while "Fish in the Jailhouse" has emerged as a foot-stomping staple of Waits’ current concert tour.
At a time when most of his musical contemporaries are devoting their dwindling energies to Miller Lite music and tired "unplugged" rehashes, the nearly 50-year-old Tom Waits is at a creative peak, recording on his own terms for a relatively small punk rock label and giving electrifying performances before sellout crowds around the country. "This world is not my home," he bellows toward the end of Mule Variations, "I’m just a-passin’ through." On this pass through, Tom Waits leaves a gift of his most bracing and heartfelt work to date.