If you didn't know better, you might think there was something wrong with Tom Waits' voice. Or that he's taken up punk, which is almost the same thing. In fact, he's simply serving up his recipe of soup-kitchen spirituality, juxtaposing pared-down primitive percussive grooves with lyrics that alternate between simplified fill-in-the-blank zipper songs and gritty images that fuse together in moments of eloquence.
Mule Variations finds Waits singing through a megaphone into a microphone, distorting his vocals in a style that seems equal parts performance art and poetry. But fear not: Waits has an artistic instinct for the song that keeps him loosely tethered to a sense of structure with more than enough slack to wander off where his free-range imagination will lead him.
Waits consistently applies his gritty sense of style as he adopts the voice of the dispossessed throughout the album. "Cold Water" captures this quality in a verse that finds Waits belting out: "Blind or crippled/Sharp or dull/I'm reading the Bible/by a 40-watt bulb/What price freedom/Dirt is my rug/Well, I sleep like a baby /with the snakes and the bugs."
In a unique take on gospel music, Waits dispenses "Chocolate Jesus," a slow-twanged ode that brings religion back to the Easter basket and is the song most likely to bring people together around the water cooler for a sing-along. Anyone who's had soul-searching dilemmas about "gnawing on the Lord" at communion will appreciate Waits' solution to questions about biting off the head of a chocolate Jesus: "When the weather gets rough/and it's whiskey in the shade/it's best to wrap your Savior/up in cellophane/He flows like the big muddy/but that's OK/Pour him over ice cream/for a nice parfait."
Waits changes pace with "Georgia Lee," a mournful hobo ballad that returns to the fate of drifters, so dear to the songwriter. Waits begs the rhetorical question, "Why wasn't God watching?/Why wasn't God listening?/Why wasn't God there for/Georgia Lee?" Waits' tenderly ragged voice and tightly chaotic instrumentation ensure that his songs are heard, from the opening sneer of "Big in Japan" to the final, pearly-gated reconciliation of "Come On Up to the House."