Tom Waits' new album, "Mule Variations," includes a tribute to a character called the Eyeball Kid. A comic-strip sideshow attraction "born without a body, not even a brow," Eyeball is a classic Waits-song protagonist. Woefully under-prepared for everyday life, freakishly unsuited for stardom and destined for disappointment, he still dreams big, swearing, "All you gotta do is book me into Carnegie Hall!"
Waits, of course, is an Eyeball Kid made good, an archetypal rock eccentric who has slouched and stumbled his way to an improbable kind of eminence. "Mule Variations" is Waits' 13th proper solo album, his first since 1992's "Bone Machine." He was on Island then; he's on the SoCal punk imprint Epitaph now, presumably free to explore his sonic obsessions, boiler-room rhythms, field-recorded chain-gang calls and battle-stripped jazz and blues without sweating the bottom line.
Sonically, "Mule" is vintage Tom; as usual, Waits co-wrote 12 of the album's 16 songs with his wife and partner in crime, Kathleen Brennan, and instrumentalists Joe Gore, Ralph Carney, Stephen Hodges and Marc Ribot all turn up again. So do all three members of Primus, former Beck touring guitarist Smokey Hormel and a turntablist named DJ M. Mark "The Ill Media" Reitman. But they're all playing by Waits' rules -- the gamelan grunts and gospel moans the DJ drops into three "Mule" cuts were probably pulled from Waits' own record collection. The considerably more plugged-in "Bone Machine," a hot-rodding, pseudo-industrial fun-house ride, seemed conscious of that whole post-"Nevermind" "alternative" thing; "Mule" doesn't betray much awareness of late-'90s rock, unless you count previously unissued turn-of-the-century field-holler compilations.
For Waits, identity has always been a full-time job. He formulated the dissipated-hipster persona displayed on his first few records by reading Bukowski and eavesdropping, finding sad-sack poetry in the conversations he heard as a nightclub doorman. The early stuff -- records like "Closing Time" and "The Heart of Saturday Night" -- can be sloppily sentimental, weighed down by too much booze and uninspired, painfully sincere production by West Coast session-band go-to guys. Waits had yet to learn to use crafty arrangement to offset his put-ons, making the horn charts wink. But he was already writing with plenty of novelistic, proper-noun detail, and the presence of words like "Oldsmobile" and "hash browns" grounds the songs even in their most trite moments. And as early as "Heart of Saturday Night," Waits was applying that dirty-realist vocabulary to poetic simile: "The clouds are like headlines," he wrote in "Shiver Me Timbers," "on a new front-page sky." Damn.
Waits spent the mid-'70s on the road, getting dissed and booed as an opening act for everyone from Poco to Charlie Rich to Frank Zappa; in his spare time, he drank, working overtime on his rep like a studio gangsta with credibility issues, trying to bring life to the beaten-down beatnik he portrayed on record. "Small Change" documents and exorcises this period; Waits' first acknowledged classic, it's also his best jazz record, a song cycle about salesmen, liquor, death and strippers propelled by sharp Shelly Manne drumming. Discussing the "Change" tune "Bad Liver and a Broken Heart" with Rolling Stone in 1976, Waits said, "I tried to resolve a few things as far as this cocktail-lounge, maudlin, crying-in-your beer image that I have. There ain't nothin' funny about a drunk. You know, I was really starting to believe that there was something amusing and wonderfully American about a drunk. I ended up telling myself to cut that shit out."
In 1978, Waits played a barfly named Mumbles in Sylvester Stallone's wrestling drama "Paradise Alley," and contributed two songs to the soundtrack. Since then, he's become the most typecast rocker-turned-actor this side of Henry Rollins, playing a succession of sad sacks and weirdos in movies like Jim Jarmusch's "Down by Law," Robert Altman's "Short Cuts," and Francis Ford Coppola's "Bram Stoker's Dracula." In a way, Hollywood saved Waits, reenergized him. His soundtrack work opened the door for the adventurous arrangements that characterized his 1980s albums; he learned to read music for the first time while scoring Coppola's "One From the Heart," for which he earned an Oscar nomination. More significantly, acting transformed the personality he put forth in his music; as he learned to turn his luggage-eyed bum persona on and off for the cameras, keeping it real in song became less important.
Gradually, the dramatic thrust of his music became positively Brechtian; albums like "Rain Dogs" and "Swordfishtrombones" are full of set pieces about tunnel dwellers and homesick merchant marines, deliberately unreal set pieces with all the songwriterly ropes and sandbags self-consciously exposed.
By the end of the '80s, working closely with Brennan, Waits was writing full-on stage plays, like "Frank's Wild Years." "The Black Rider," a 1993 operetta written in collaboration with Robert Wilson and William S. Burroughs, featured Waits affecting a Colonel Klink accent as the demented carnival barker at the center of a Teutonic folk tale. A performer who'd experienced chart success only secondhand (Rod Stewart rode Waits' "Downtown Train" straight to the top in 1990; Bruce Springsteen covered his "Jersey Girl"), Waits seemed to have left pop behind, trading the flophouse and the piano bar for a life of concert-hall performances, difficult "conceptual" projects and dismissive critical notices in the New Yorker. For a while there, he'd dropped off the map almost completely, materializing only to reaffirm his professional-eccentric status (check for him as a mad scientist in the upcoming film "Mystery Men," alongside William H. Macy and Ben Stiller). His performance at this year's South By Southwest conference marked his first live solo appearance since 1996.
Given all that, "Mule Variations" is a uniquely Waitsian curveball, a collection of surprisingly funky dirt-road grooves, devotional murmurs and disarming odes to family, friendship and domesticity. Waits once identified his characters as "rain dogs," wandering lost the way dogs do after a storm, their territorial markings erased. That weird, extraordinary image is at the core of his artistic output; in Waits' songs, "home" is usually a crushed photo in a stolen wallet, something irretrievably lost. "Mule Variations" changes that -- it's all about home, from the communal pig-roast described in the stream-of-consciousness blues explosion "Filipino Box Spring Hog" to marriage snapshots like "Picture in a Frame" and "Take It With Me." On "What's He Building," a goofy/spooky spoken-word piece underscored with metallic clanks and bangs, Waits imagines what it's like to live next door to an eccentric cult-rocker who tinkers with bizarre homemade percussion instruments all night long. "I'll tell you one thing," a neighbor snaps, "he's not building a playhouse for the children."
Maybe not, but on "Come on up to the House," the bellowed soul ballad that closes the record, Waits sounds like he's opening his place up to all the losers he's immortalized in song, feeding rain dogs from the table and letting the Eyeball Kid crash on his couch. "All your cryin' don't do no good ... Come down off the cross, we can use the wood/Come on
up to the house," he growls, in a voice that seems to have leveled off at a comfortable degree of deterioration, pouring out another round of tough love just for the freaks.