Tom Waits’ 12th studio album and most commercially successful work since 1985’s Rain Dogs sounds like a front-porch jam session on a sweaty night in the Delta that also sees Captain Beefheart and Harold Arlen drop on by for a visit. The vocalist’s ability to sell more than a million copies of a double album that spans the expanse of American popular music all the way to early 20th-century German avant-garde epitomizes his genius.
Mule Variations opens with the industrial-tinged screamer “Big in Japan” and the dirge “Low Side of the Road.” In many ways, both tracks function as an aural tip of the hat to the iron, gravel, and distortion style exemplified by 1992’s Bone Machine and 1993’s The Black Rider. Waits then slides into the wistful “Hold On,” a song that stands up with his other masterful ballads like “Jersey Girl” and “Downtown Train.” Indeed, one of the secrets behind Mule Variations’ appeal pertains to its ability to appeal to fans of every phase of the singer’s varied career. Cynics who revel in “Chocolate Jesus” will probably be just as likely to join romantics who love the melodic, late-night reflection “Take It with Me.” The album ends with the rousing, all-together-now chorus of “Come on Up to the House.” For fans of American roots music, Mule Variations is church.
The sound quality of the original 1999 vinyl pressing of Mule Variations represents the gold standard. It was recorded, mixed, and mastered in analog—and the original lacquers cut by Chris Bellman at Bernie Grundman Studios. Dynamics are wide, images holographic, and backgrounds black. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of the 2018 analog edition. The new version sounds rolled-off, drab, and compressed when compared to the original and faithful 2010 Rhino reissue. Multiple scuff marks and smaller-than-regulation spindle holes on my copy serve as further indications of quality-control problems.
Waits and Kathleen Brennan’s remaster can’t be blamed given the 44.1kHz digital version of Mule Variations sports dynamics, detail, and emotion. By contrast, Anti-‘s vinyl pressing is like an MP3 file: It may sound like the original, but anyone who’s heard the original or any other full-resolution version will wonder what the hell went wrong. Waits’ artistry—and your ears—deserve better.
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