Blues Genie Genie

May 5, 1999 at 12:00 am

Okay, here goes: Time waits for no man — Tom Waits till he's damn good and ready. See, that wasn't so bad.

As evidenced by Mule Variations, the blessing and the curse of Tom Waits' leisurely recording pace over these last three albums is that newcomers to Waits' world of down-but-not-out survivors, lovers and well-past-midnight coffee shop ruminations can take the time to get inside his head through his massive body of past works of noise and romance.

And the noises he makes! Slow-tempo funky clangs like work songs gone wrong, ambient scores to nightmares you don't wanna remember and bent-but-beautiful, ringing guitar ballads over which Waits imparts all of the blues fury and hush of his poor, poor vocal cords.

It's a blessing because Waits' is a truly unique world of sounds and stories that deserves to be lived in — figuratively speaking, of course.

It's a curse because his music is so idiosyncratic that Waits — barring the kind of artistic quantum leap of his landmark album Bone Machine — too often runs the risk of becoming a caricature of himself, or at least inadvertently repeating himself, and his fans will call him on it. It is on this thin line between invention and repetition that Waits soft shoes expertly over the course of Mule Variations, his first album of new material since the arcane dervish opera, The Black Rider.

Mule Variations is just what the title says: crossbred, bastardized and mutated takes on familiar Waits themes, sounds, grooves and atmospheres. If Waits didn't already have a track record for wild eclecticism within the confines of a single record, you'd think Mule Variations was a greatest hits compilation. The tunes are familiar, the offspring of songs from Raindogs, Bone Machine, Black Rider and Swordfishtrombones — all Waits classics — thrown back into, then spewed out of, the brain of one cantankerous music man, altered but not unrecognizable. There are twisted rockers, disturbed and paranoid spoken word pieces, and more far-out music strewn casually about the flophouse than most songwriters could meticulously launder their entire career.

A triumphant return? Not entirely. A potent reminder of songwriting's impossibly broad vista? Yup. Add this record to your musical living space and get comfortable, cuz Mr. Waits may be awhile.