Last week I got this limited edition pressing of Tom Waits’s The Mule Variations on Discogs:
Just today I found out from my good friend Dan that this week is the album’s 20th anniversary.
This is a pretty damn good track-by-track retrospective of what may have been his finest album ever. Tom Waits fans tend to divide themselves into periods. I have friends who like the oldest stuff best, friends who prefer the Small Change period or the era of Rain Dogs and Frank’s Wild Years. Me, I love all of it. Even a couple of tracks from those early years, when he showed more promise than payoff.
The Mule Variations straddles all of those boundaries. It’s a primer on his whole career and an executive summary of the cuddly junkyard clang of his sensibilities. He croons, he screams, he digs up roots and pounds them to pulp on a hotel dresser. He creeps and growls and even thunders up a gospel song you could almost screw to.
“Pony” is my tired and lonely song. “Filipino Box Spring Hog” is my summer cicada stomp. I want to buy a banjo and a rooster so I can learn to play “Chocolate Jesus”. And “Picture in a Frame”? That song is me with shaking hands and a tattoo bandage, watching my wife come down the aisle.
Tom’s music was part of what sold me on her, incidentally. She made me a mixtape when we started dating, on an actual cassette. I was on board by the end of “Christmas Card from a Hooker in Minneapolis” and in love by the end of “Train Song”. I spent two weeks memorizing “Step Right Up” and can still do the whole sales pitch. Hoped it might impress her. She stuck around.
I’ve sung his songs to babies and howled them blind drunk. I’ve torn my throat up on the loud ones and whispered the quiet ones like prayers. He’s laid down fully half of the soundtrack of my entire adult life. And The Mule Variations binds all of those songs together, the horse bone glue of a nearly half-decade-long body of work that I can’t imagine not having right at hand.
I suppose it should make me feel old, contemplating the 20th birthday of an album that fell out of the sky at almost exactly the same moment that my wife did too. But all I can feel is grateful that I was there when they both landed.