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“Sorting out the Mess That is Mule Variations by Splitting into Two Separate, Distinct Mini-LP’s”

Is it possible for an album to be “classic” but not “listenable”? Yes — it’s Mule Variations by Tom Waits, his ’98 “comeback album” (albeit one which found him handling the lyrical topic of sleeping in a graveyard) which is so full of unforgettable songs as to put it on par with Abbey Road or Led Zeppelin IV, the juxtapositions of these songs then awful enough to stun a bison. Ridiculously often, the ensuing tune on a straight-through listen of Mule Variations will mark a jarring, egregious breach in the certain brand of energy that was established by the last song. Specifically what I’m talking about, which will obviously be old news to pretty much any Tom Waits fans, is the frustrating back-and-forth toggling between songs that are high energy, which therein also encompass the cathartic and ominous, and songs that are ballads — reflective, peaceful odes which seem to furnish a hard-won, but almost invariably benign, bit of life wisdom. By contrast, the cathartic or abrasive pieces always seem to be negative in lyrical content too (Waits complaining that he’s only big in Japan, conjuring up the repulsive image of a “Filipino box spring hog,” et. al.), hence making the off-putting dichotomy at work on the album even more pungent and unapproachable, and what’s more, frustrating, for the two distinct mini-LP’s that could have materialized from Waits’ consummate material of this time. Eh, let’s blame it on the record industry’s reliance on the 80-minute CD around this point. I’d be surprised if there were any other applicable culprit, other of course than Waits himself, who should have had the headstrong chutzpah to know that this collection of songs, though substantial pound for pound, wasn’t a cohesive album.

Here is my suggestion for an alternate sequencing of Mule Variations, which finds it divided into two distinct mini-LP’s along the lines of the stylistic dichotomy I outline in the blurb above:

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Krill Variations:

1 “Picture in a Frame”

2 “Hold on”

3 “House Where Nobody Lives”

4 “Georgia Lee”

5 “Pony”

6 “Come on up to the House”

7 “Take it with Me”

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Mule Fractures:

1 “Big in Japan”

2 “Lowside of the Road”

3 “Chocolate Jesus”

4 “Filipino Box Spring Hog”

5 “Cold Water”

6 “Get behind the Mule”

7 “Black Market Baby”

8 “Eyeball Kid”

9 “What’s He Building?”

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