Tom Waits, Mule Variations

Sam Adams

By Sam Adams

on 10.24.11 in Reviews

Mule Variations

Tom Waits
Great moments, but in ways we’ve come to expect

After another lengthy break between albums, Waits emerged with an album that sums up his post-Swordfishtrombones career without breaking much in the way of new ground. Given that there’s no one else working his turf, the lack of innovation isn’t an issue; the title, with its allusions to stubbornness and repetition, proclaims as much. “What’s He Building” is a distorted, paranoid monologue delivered atop radio squeals and disembodied whistles, as if Waits was constantly fiddling with the frequency, trying to tune in his own signal. “Get Behind the Mule” draws on a bluesy well not much tapped since Heartattack and Vine, and there’s a gentleness to “House Where Nobody Lives” that had largely slipped out of his repertoire, but they’re variations on a theme and not strides forward. By this point, Waits has made so many consistently surprising records that it’s almost disorienting to come across one that’s tweaking the formula rather than changing it up. There are still great moments, but they’re great in the ways we’ve come to expect.