I once took a poetry workshop taught by a guy called Ed Dorn. You may have heard of Ed Dorn. He's a fairly famous guy, as poets go, and he's written his fair share of well- known poems. The first day of Dorn's poetry workshop consisted of him delivering a sometimes scathing and mostly nonsensical monologue that veered from Roman aqueducts to the Russian poet Akhmatova to indigenous North African peoples. The main thrust was one simple point: nobody has written a truly great poem over the course of the last fifty years, and if anyone is going to write the one great poem of the last quarter of the twentieth century, it was not going to be one of us sophomore- year poetry scrubs. Sorry, it just wasn't.
I'd like to take this opportunity to extend Ed Dorn's admonition to the bulk of Pitchfork's readership, and to amend it thusly: neither will any of you write a song as good as Tom Waits' very worst song. Sorry, you just won't. And to reach the levels of one of his very best songs, you'd have to spend the next twenty years training with ninjas in a high mountain monastery, travel from there to Haiti to have bizarre Voudun rites performed over your writing hand, and then sell your soul to Satan for good measure. Better get started.
So far, reviews of Mule Variations have been mixed, ranging from shameless hero worship (yeah, yeah, like this one), to jaded critics claiming that Waits hit his songwriting peak with 1985's Rain Dogs. Some guy recently told a friend of mine that he didn't like Mule Variations because "I saw Waits play in San Francisco in the late '80s, and I just wasn't that into it, cuz I liked Waits better when he was a ballad singer." What does that mean? I have one theory about those dissing Mule Variations: they know in their hearts what Ed Dorn and I have just told you, and crying out "He's slipping!" is a backhanded way of claiming equality with one of the world's greatest living performers.
Don't listen to the bastards and their sour grapes. Mule Variations is a great album, and that's all there is to it. Sonically, it picks up where Bone Machine left off , but drops some of that album's artifice: the clattering, trebly out- back- of- the- shed sound is still here and the inexplicable presence of Primus persists, but many of these songs find Waits relaxing his krazy karnival barker persona. The songs most people are keying on-- "Big in Japan," "Filipino Box Spring Hog" and "Eyeball Kid" have been getting a lot of airtime lately on my local college station-- are standard later- era Waits jams, complete with weird rattling percussion and menacing images of hellhounds and mutant children.
But the really good stuff here, as with any Tom Waits record, is the slower stuff. "Hold On" has a classic "Jersey Girl" vibe, and while there may be a little lyrical cheez involved, it's exciting to hear a return to that sound. "Pony," "House Where Nobody Lives" and "Picture In a Frame" are ballads that can stand with Waits' best, from earlier tunes like "Burma Shave" or "Martha" straight through to "A Little Rain." The album- closing bittersweet mid- tempo rocker tradition has never seen a better entry than "Come On Up to the House," and the strange, out- of- phase falsetto backing vocals on "Black Market Baby" are alone worth the price of admission.
It's true that this is not Rain Dogs, Swordfishtrombones or even Frank's Wild Years. But is it Tom Waits' fault that people are so hung up on those particular albums? Look, you've got two options here: you can continue to bolster your own nonexistent street cred by dissing new Tom Waits in favor of old Tom Waits, or you can give it up, admit that it's all great and increase your own personal enjoyment. The choice seems like a no- brainer to me.