Listening to Tom Waits' Mule Variations is like picking a dirty mutt off the streets and taking it home--you're not exactly certain what it is, but it's a howler and a hell raiser for sure.
Waits' first release on indie Epitaph Records is also his first new album in six years. Like his literary cousins Jack Kerouac and Charles Bukowski, he returns to the same down-and-outs and restless souls, this time with more rumble, kick and bluesy musings than barroom rasped ramblings. Hobo yowler "Cold Water" will rattle in your head for days. Quieter moments are searing, Waits' gravelly voice bending like an old tree under the blade of a pocketknife. To top it off, he spikes the album with oddities like "Eyeball Kid." On Mule Variations, the music pounds and the lyrics are sharp, "My eyes say their prayers to her/sailors ring her bell/Like a moth mistakes a light bulb/For the moon and goes to hell." From the grinding sturm und drang of "Big in Japan" to the bittersweet strum and twang of "Pony," Waits finds a little bit o' grit, a touch of tenderness and plenty of humor in the everything-in-between.