8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
Expanding musical horizons,
This review is from: Mule Variations (Audio CD)
The worst thing you could possibly do with any Tom Waits record released in the last twenty years or so is to judge it on just one (or even two) listens. I could almost bet my life on the fact that the great majority (all?) of the one-star reviews that Waits' albums tend to get here and there, dotted in between the glowing praise, are from people who did just that - listened it to once, and made up their minds.
Waits is an artist that always evolves from album to album, always explores new ways of expression, new instrumentation, new atmospheres and soundscapes. He is never complacent, nor does he try to appeal to us through familiarity, and it is exactly this that often means that to "get" a Tom Waits record you have to let it seep in; the first spin of the album will often leave you in "sensory overload" after the first few songs and make you deaf to all that makes his music so brilliant. Mainstream music can rely on it's generic familiarity to get it's hooks on you quickly, while music with more depth and character will inevitably require a little more patience initially.
When Mule Variations came out, I bought it immediately, with high expectations... and after the first listen, I felt disappointed. The album sounded much too Country/Folk to me, and Country music is something I'm not particularly fond of to say the least (Though my tolerance has increased much due to Waits - "A Little Rain" from the Bone Machine album even makes it among my favourites). Big in Japan felt abbrasive, many of the songs felt too simple somehow, and I think that my disappointment clouded my vision. Had I been asked afterwards what the highlites were, I'd have been hard pressed to come up with any, and that would have been my failing, not the albums; since the highs of this album are very high indeed.
With several more listens, I began to see things a little differently - the songs I didn't like I still had to admit were good, in some objective sense; I'm not so arrogant as to suggest that any kind of music that doesn't strike a chord with me couldn't possibly be good music - there is good music out there that just isn't my kind of music, and that's due to my limitations, not the music's. Perhaps some of the one-star reviewers just haven't grasped this concept.
This album is perhaps a somewhat surpricing divider among Waits fans, in that some view it as a slight lapse on Waits' part, whereas others view it as one of his best works - and interestingly, I've found that people that don't much care for Mule Variations, tend to view Alice as a "return to brilliance", wheras the fans of Mule Variations often denounce Alice as a slight lapse from Wait's top form. I think the difference can be explained by general musical tastes and backgrounds - for people who don't listen to country/folk outside of Waits, or only listen to very little of it, like myself, Mule Variations has an uphill struggle to reveal it's strengths; there's little chance of instant liking. (This is perhaps why Mule Variations appears to be so much better liked in North America than in Europe; Country music is a very minor genre in Europe, wheras it is hugely popular in North America)
Similarly, those without a predisposition towards misty, Jazzy moods, may find Alice difficult to get into - and those who have sympathies towards that sort of music will immediately recognize Alice as a masterpiece.
For the patient, that are willing to give it a second (and a third) chance before passing judgement, Waits will reward them by expanding their musical horizons and opening brand new vistas for exploration. Mule Variations did this for me.
My favourite songs on the albums include "Cold Water" - an achingly simple folk song with a real chickenwire-feel; "Chocolate Jesus", a brilliant, compassionately funny song about a man (woman?) who combines a chocolate addicition with an aversion for the rigors of traditional religious worship; "Take It With Me", an absolutely beautiful ballad, a Waits classic; and "Come On Up To The House", a gospel-influenced song that always brings a smile to my face with the line "Come on down from the cross, we can use the wood!".
Still, I can't claim that I unreservedly like this album: there are some songs there that just don't do it for me, and one - "Pony" - that just makes me gringe. That one just won't grow on me, no matter how many times I've heard it. I've tried, honestly! :)
So in conclusion:
(False) Initial impression - 2 stars, After 3+ listens - 4 stars, and an understanding why for some people this may be among the best of Waits.