But Ken Tucker insists that the songs are formulaic, unoriginal, and highly overrated

By Ken Tucker
May 11, 1999 at 04:00 AM EDT

Mule Variations

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Tom Waits is getting raves for his new CD

Okay, I liked ”Swordfishtrombones” (1983) and ”Bone Machine” (1992), but in the torrent of praise soaking the release of Tom Waits’ new CD ”Mule Variations,” I persist in what I’ve thought for more than 20 years now: The guy’s overrated, and more than a little bit of a shuck ‘n’ jive artist. I’m not as down on him as I used to be. When I lived in L.A., I was so sick of being surrounded by proponents of the Waits myth — who hymned praise for the gravel-voiced nighthawk at the diner who lived the stumblebum life of his subjects — that I used to insist that if you woke up Ol’ Gargle Throat at 7 a.m., he’d say in the clear, ringing voice, ”What ho, good chap? Is it morning already?” I thought he was, in short, a fraud.

Listening to ”Mule Variations” confirms that there aren’t that many variations in the Waits canon, and even those are pretty derivative: Take a big cup of Muddy Waters, stir in some Charles Bukowski, and add a dollop of Captain Beefheart, and presto — you’ve got about 90 percent of what Waits has been producing, with the remaining 10 percent consisting of the strain of sentimentality that led Bruce Springsteen to cover ”Jersey Girl.”

”Mule Variations” is as commercial a recording as Waits has released since 1974’s ”The Heart of Saturday Night,” and believe me, ”commercial” is no dirty word in my pop vocabulary. But on ”Mule,” when Waits tries to be catchy (”Big in Japan,” ”Low Side of the Road”) he comes off merely goofy, and elsewhere here, he’s just plain unlistenable (”Black Market Baby”). The problem is, he’s not as much of an iconoclast as he thinks he is; he’s lucky to have guitarist Mark Ribot around once again to provide chords and lines more wayward and imaginative than the author’s melodies and words.

Waits is a classic cult artist, and there’s no convincing a cult, which by definition consists of believers beyond reason. But me, I’ve bought my last Waits disc; when his ”Variations” aren’t even various, it’s time to leave him to his admirers, who’ll only encourage his most self-indulgent mannerisms anyway. Me, I’m too busy enjoying the new Robbie Williams CD.

Mule Variations

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