Pop: The Big Noise: Tom Waits - Mule Variations Epitaph

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ON HIS first album in seven years, Tom Waits surrounds himself with blues players - the guitarist John Hammond Jr, the blues-harpist Charlie Musselwhite, the former Canned Heat bassist Larry Taylor - and gets back to the land. Mule Variations is a Route 66 record in a freeway world, intent on summoning the ghosts of a disappearing rural past, replete with their local mythologies and suspicions. It generally proceeds at a slower pace than we're used to travelling in today's shiny pop vehicles, and the chrome is heavily pockmarked with the tarnish of generations past.

At times the sense of decay is so palpable, you wonder whether your CD player should be fitted with a cat's whisker. But for all its lovingly distressed antiquity, it retains more life than the average shopping mall, inhabited as it is by the characterful hobos of "Pony" and "Cold Water", and carny geeks such as the "Eyeball Kid", a monocular monstrosity who "came down to teach us how to really see". The cranky, croaky blues "Get Behind the Mule" is the pivotal piece, an evocation of rural unease populated by such as Beaula, Beatty, Jack the Cutter and Jimmy the Harp. "Got to get behind the mule in the morning and plow," Waits recommends as Musselwhite's harp wails low in the distance, before going on to offer more cryptic (and less useful) advice along the lines of "Pin your ear to the wisdom post, pin your eye to the line".

There's a convincing tang of country apocrypha about the song, a blend of the surreal and rural which Waits himself has tagged "Surrural".

It's present, too, in pieces like "Lowside of the Road", where bespoke percussion instruments such as the chumbus and the dousengoni (who knows?) scatter potholes of awkward rhythm in the song's path, forcing it across from the sunny side of the street; and in the bizarre theological confection "Chocolate Jesus", which, recorded alfresco, includes a faint cock-crow, like a watermark of rural authenticity.

Alongside these windblown, weatherbeaten husks are songs that hark back to other Waits compositions - "Hold On" is a first cousin to "Downtrain Train", "Cold Water" a less sentimental "On the Nickel". But they're set seamlessly within the flow of the album, like familiar footmarks to help listeners through a path overgrown with weeds. The result is another landmark album from one of modern music's most valuable talents - a man who, like the lover in "Black Market Baby", is "a diamond that wants to stay coal".