Tom Waits’ ’Mule Variations’

Of all the weird characters who populate Tom Waits’ Mule Variations – the guy who cooks roast pig on a mattress, the guy who worships Jesus at a candy store, the mysterious loner who keeps formaldehyde under the sink and “used to have a consulting business in Indonesia” – the weirdest is the title character of “Eyeball Kid.” Son of curio museum owners Zenora Bariella and Coriander Pyle (“all they ever wanted was a show biz child”), Eyeball Kid is, well, a big disembodied eyeball. “He’s not conventionally handsome, he’ll never be tall,” but he is, strangely enough, the album’s most empathetic character.

Maybe because he’s the most autobiographical. Even in the early ’70s, when he began his career as a balladeer writing sentimental plaints (the Eagles and Sarah McLachlan both covered his “Ol’ 55”), Waits developed a persona: the gutter beatnik “so goddamn horny that the crack of dawn better be careful.” The juxtaposition of idiosyncrasy and formula – of freakishness and normalcy – has been a Waitsian trademark ever since.

It’s on “Eyeball Kid” that Waits’ contrasting tendencies collide most poignantly. Its background a horrid curio museum of its own, all turntable screeches, moaning woodwinds and rickety percussion, the song nevertheless carries a strange pathos that transcends its own perverse vignette. “I know you can’t sign, so cry right here on the dotted line,” a would-be manager tells Eyeball Kid, and the song’s carnival-esque claustrophobia becomes a vivid explication of its character’s exploitation.

Waits describes this effect as “surrural:” Mule Variations pursues the rustic and the absurd with equal determination. His is an arid, dusty South where one can taste the rum and hear the roosters (literally, on “Chocolate Jesus”), where the centers of activity are the porches, barns and dirt roads. But despite references to Baptist churches and Mayors Income, Tennessee, Waits has no interest in the South as a literal construct. Instead, it’s a starting point from which he examines the surreal: from the Baptist churches come chocolate Jesuses, from Mayors Income the ex-wife of the Indonesian consultant.

Mule Variations hits its stride when Waits takes his flair for the contradictory to its logical extreme. Dichotomy stirs him to his most passionate writing and singing: the album-opener “Big in Japan,” virtually a laundry list of self-defeating rhymes (“I got the clouds but not the sky/I got the stripes but not the tie”), is the album’s best rocker, a throbbing bass and horn juggernaut punctuated by Waits’ remarkably gravelly vocals.

Waits’ voice, one of the most singular “love it or hate it” propositions in the business, adds weather and weight to his most bizarre contradictions. His delivery on “Filipino Box Spring Hog,” a brilliantly deranged monstrosity of a blues stomp, is every bit as hickory as the “rattlesnake piccata” and “mince meat filagree” he describes. His guttural roar on “Come on Up to the House” transforms a standard gospel interpretation into a cathartic powerhouse. It even redeems his most indulgent ideas: the spoken-word “What’s He Building?” would be tiresome if the man’s voice weren’t just so damn great.

Of course, his songwriting (most of it done with wife Kathleen Brennan) is rangy and adept. Waits has never lost his affinity for the smoky ballads of his Closing Time days, nor has he lost the ability to craft indelible ones. “Picture in a Frame” and “Take it with Me” are two of his prettiest and sincerest love odes; “Hold on” and “Pony” are expertly realized fantasies of dustbowl nomadism.

But it’s by broadening his stylistic palette (or at least amplifying the breadth) that Waits makes the surrural successful. Mule Variations is heavily steeped in gutbucket blues and Southern gospel, and Waits displays an understanding of – and willingness to deliver reinterpretive readings of – both. Especially brilliant is the way he applies his knack for paradox to gospel iconography. “Georgia Lee” doesn’t celebrate God; it asks why he wasn’t watching over a murdered child. “Come on Up to the House” pragmatically declares, “Come down off the cross/we can use the wood.”

The point? Waits finds inspiration in the downtrodden, and the downtrodden in the inspired. It might sound more clever than profound on paper, but Waits sets it to music so evocative that it works wonderfully. “Get Behind the Mule,” “Lowside of the Road” and “Black Market Baby” might be more impressions than songs, but they’re executed and recorded with such grit and smoke that they seem to be performed along with the snakes and bugs that Waits sleeps with in “Cold Water.” Mule Variations is the first genuinely earthen Waits record, and it gains power and gravitas as a result.

Mule Variations isn’t tight or even technically proficient – he may never recapture the songwriting magic of his mid-1980s Swordfishtrombones and Rain Dogs – but what it lacks in singularity it more than makes up for in longevity and history. Like fellow grumpy weirdo David Thomas and his band Pere Ubu (whose Pennsylvania was last year’s Mule Variations), Waits doesn’t even need to bother writing songs anymore: his autopilot is exponentially more textured than tighter rockers half his age. Waits and Thomas are true Eyeball Kids: they’ve seen so much that the mere act of vision is layered and fascinating.