While Tom Waits had a great run of albums from Swordfishtrombones until the end of the 20th century, Mule Variations is certainly a highlight; it’s more fun and diverse than the subdued Frank’s Wild Years and the serious Bone Machine. Mule Variations is just about the quintessential Tom Waits album, with piano ballads, blues stompers, and more experimental pieces.
But Mule Variations doesn’t simply cover all of Tom Waits’ bases; it does it with aplomb, and there are strong tunes in each area of his oeuvre. ‘Filipino Box Spring Hog’ and ‘Big in Japan’ are rollicking blues stompers. ‘What’s He Building In There’ is a memorable spoken word piece, with Waits’ voice mysterious and chilling. There are plenty of pretty piano ballads like ‘Georgia Lee’ and ‘Take It With Me’. Mule Variations ends on a triumphant note with ‘Come On Up To The House’, a grand, wheezing statement of inclusiveness and solidarity.
Almost thirty years into Waits’ career, Bone Machine is a contender for his best album – a stunning effort in what’s usually a young person’s game.