Band: Tom Waits
Album: Mule Variations
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: Possibly his best work, "Mule Variations" is classic Waits: Grimey, clever and bizarre. Coming off a five-year hiatus, Waits played off his folk/blues roots by using mostly odd householf items for percussion.
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: As with all things Waits, it's not an easy listen.
Best song: The opener, "Big in Japan," is brilliant. "Get Behind the Mule" is amazing.
Worst song: I know people like "Filipino Box Spring Hog," but it just doesn't resonate for me, for some reason.
Is it awesome?: Yes, actually.
"Mule Variations" was released after a five-year layoff from Tom Waits and the first for him on the independent Anti Records. Waits is looked at by many independent artists as the ultimate in independents, as he clearly does whatever the hell he wants.
"Mule Variations" is Waits at the crossroads of his independence and his best artistry. His songwriting (assisted by his wife Kathleen Brennan) is in top form and his growl is similarly near its apex. The album, again, is full of strange, old instruments and carnival melodies.
The album starts out with "Big in Japan," a raucous song with the Primus backing Waits up. "Hold On" has Waits at a more tender moment. "Get Behind the Mule" is a more folky situation, one where Waits' softer vocal work can thrive.
As explained by AllMusic.com, "Get Behind the Mule" is partially a nod towards Robert Johnson.
Tom Waits explained in his press material for his 1999 album Mule Variations that "Get Behind the Mule" is a reference to something that bluesman Robert Johnson's father once said about his son: "He said, 'Trouble with Robert is he wouldn't get behind the mule in the morning and plow,' because that was the life that was there for him. To be a sharecropper," said Waits. "But he ran off to Maxxwell Street and all over Texas. He wasn't going to stick around. Get behind the mule can be whatever you want it to mean. We all have to get up in the morning and go to work."
Overall, it's a fantastic song on a great album.