Best Albums of My Life #2: Mule Variations

There are a couple of things that even Pitchfork and I can agree on. #1: the Hold Steady is awesome. #2: you won’t “write a song as good as Tom Waits’ very worst song. Sorry, you just won’t.” They wrote that about the first Tom Waits album I ever heard, 1999’s Mule Variations. And, to this day, it’s the one sentence in all of Pitchfork’s history with which I agree word for word.

I first encountered Mr. Waits on an episode of VH1’s Storytellers and I was immediately struck by how awesome his stories were and how little they had to do with the songs he was performing. And the songs! Sweet Jesus, the first time I heard “House Where Nobody Lives”, I think I had an experience like the Mormon missionaries try to sell you about divine revelation. Here was a dude who was speaking the truth in a way I’d never heard anyone speak it before. I ran out and purchased Mule Variations immediately. That was ten years ago and my copy has seen better days, but it spins just fine and still resonates just as deeply.This album, like many Tom Waits albums, is the real shit – the deep down, bloody, muddy, messy, broken, gospel of sinners, whores, bums, ruffians, ne’er-do-wells, and basically everyone else.

What is it about Waits that’s so goddamn impressive? His songs are journeys, for starters. And, though they are full of specificity (including street names and weather, things Waits views as essential to good songs), they strike a universal chord. Take “Tom Traubert’s Blues”, for example: you don’t have to have actually been somewhere where no one speaks English and everything’s broken to understand exactly how he feels. Right? Waits intuitively understands broken-hearted, busted-ass loneliness and the anguish he howls from the rooftops is our anguish – a friend of mine in college said that Waits is crying so that you don’t have to. You couldn’t do it that well anyway. And that’s due in large part to his voice. I know, I know, a lot of people are all “Tom Waits can’t sing” or “his voice sounds funny” or “he sounds like Cookie Monster” but what they don’t understand is that for what Tom Waits is trying to tell you (about you, about us, about nasty, brutish, and short fucking life), ordinary voices are useless. I’d go so far as to say that they are insultingly inadequate. For the heartache and, yes, the joy that Waits is bringing on his tunes, you need a voice that’s a still-beating heart being tossed into a wood chipper in the middle of a nuclear war. You need a voice that took a stiff shot of whiskey and chewed up the glass. You need exactly the voice that only Tom Waits has. Do you really wanna hear Josh Groban inviting you to come on up to the house when “the only thing that you can see/ is all that you lack”? No. No, you don’t.

Mule Variations is full of some of Waits’s best busted-ass moments, too. On “Get Behind the Mule” (this is how Waits encourages perseverance – he’s not gonna tell you you’re beautiful no matter what they say and that words can’t bring you down; there’s no time for that in the Tom Waits universe. You’ve gotta get up and get to work, just like the rest of us), he gave me a line that resonated through pretty much every failed romance of my life since I first heard it: “Big Jack Earl was 8 foot one/ and he stood in the road and he cried/ he couldn’t make her love him/ couldn’t make her stay/ but tell the good lord he tried.” Again, a lot of people have probably stood in poor Jack Earl’s giant shoes. On “Cold Water”, Waits feels the pain of “pregnant women and Vietnam vets/ out there beggin’ on the freeway/ ’bout as hard as it gets”. That’s a line Bruce Springsteen would’ve sold (and/or had sex with) his mother to write.

But Mule Variations isn’t all gritty, bone-tired heartache, either. It also features a fair amount of that magical Tom Waits weirdness. “What’s He Building?” reads like a list of rumors Waits’s neighbors might cook up about him. “Eyeball Kid” is a circus-freak anthem complete with a telling autobiographical element: the Eyeball Kid was born on December 7, 1949, the same day as Thomas Alan Waits. Like the Eyeball Kid, Waits came here to show us how to really see. And “Filipino Box-Spring Hog” is a recipe for awesome disaster and possibly also a terrible dinner.

The thing (if there is indeed only one thing, which I kinda doubt) that makes Mule Variations a masterpiece (in a career full of them) is how easily the oddball tunes sit along side some of Waits’s finest ballads: “Picture in a Frame” features a line that I find so honest and so simply romantic that it has caused me, upon reflection, to give up writing love songs myself: “I’m gonna love you till the wheels come off.” Maybe that doesn’t grab y’all the same way it grabs me, but when the radio is crowded with people singing about how someone is their whole life or their everything or whatever, Waits’s lyric cuts me to the quick. I want to love someone till the wheels come off and, luckily, I get to. Sorry, Portugal. The Man fans, someone out there really loves terrible ol’ me. No one said life is fair.

And then there’s “Georgia Lee”, a piano ballad about a girl who was murdered. I love that Waits doesn’t just make a tug for your heart strings here. He does nothing less than call God out for dropping the ball: “Why wasn’t God watching?/ Why wasn’t God listening?/ Why wasn’t God there/ for Georgia Lee?”  It’s clear, then, that Tom Waits doesn’t just understand romantic loss. He understands the feeling of being massively, cosmically fucked over, and he can howl that pain for you too. Is it overstating it to suggest that Waits is out there, strolling the universe, absorbing some of the hits for all of us? Maybe; but when I listen to his stuff, I’m not so sure. This is my gospel music, kids – and Mule Variations closes with a kick-drum stomping spoonful of raw spirituality called “Come On Up to the House,” where Pastor Tom tells us to “come down off the cross/ we can use the wood” and reminds us “the world is not my home/ I’m just passing through.” Is that corny? So be it; after my sister died last year, this was one of the songs that picked me back up, that let me laugh and cry at the same time. So for me, Tom Waits’s music has real healing power, the kinda stuff some people find in church and other people find in a bottle.

If a major criterion for being the voice of your generation (or any generation) is being able to tap into the hopes, joys, loves, and fears of that generation with a profound understanding (is that a major criterion? I should hope so), then it might be time to consider that Tom Waits is the true voice of at least one generation and probably of many generations. Sure, he’s not as glamorous as Kanye West and he doesn’t want the job nearly as bad as Kanye does, but his music is 9000 times more honest. In my lifetime, Tom Waits has made some of the most heart-wrenchingly meaningful music I have heard and Mule Variations is my favorite of his albums not just because it’s amazing, but also because it was my gateway into the man’s entire body of work. It has shown me the way to songs that have seen me through pretty much every high and low point of my life for the last ten years.

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Wilco (The Album) and a Mixed Bag of Sports Metaphors

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Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that it’s 2002 and your band records one of the best albums of this decade (which means, at this point in time, you would be in the running for one of the best albums of the century and millennium so far – nice work). Your label rejects it, you tell them to get fucked, they drop you, and a few months later, one of their subsidiaries picks you up and releases your album to widespread critical acclaim. Your album helps me through a romantic rocky patch in my life and, along with the album you made before that and everything Tom Waits has ever done, your new album is part of a little musical cavern into which I would periodically crawl to lick my emotional wounds.

Congratulations, you’re Wilco, and the album in question is Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. Well done. Now let’s say you’re reading a Bollocks! review in 2009 and I’m talking about the new Wilco album, conveniently named Wilco (The Album). It’s easy to say that because – surprise! – that’s exactly what’s happening right now.

Wilco has entered what I’ll call the Can’t Win phase of their career. Since Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, Wilco’s been trapped in a critical Catch-22 by people who thought YHF was an “experimental” masterpiece (masterpiece, yes, but it’s basically a Beatles album). They wanted more of that, please and thank you, but when Jeff Tweedy cranked up the guitars on A Ghost is Born, the critical panties grew a bit bunched. Not guitars, they said. They wanted blips and bleeps. So when Wilco released Sky Blue Sky, admittedly a great grower album (I owned it for a year before I realized, on a lazy drive back from the Bay Area, that it’s a gorgeous album in its own quiet way), the critics brought out the big guns – “dad rock,” they called it. How dare Wilco try to make 70s rock records? Those don’t have our beloved bleeps and blips. So now we have Wilco (The Album) and the critics seem to want to like it, though Pitchfork said it lacked the audacity of their other records (A.M. and Sky Blue Sky don’t strike me as particularly audacious, but maybe that’s because I know what “audacious” means. Of course, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot was their most audacious album, but that’s because everyone thought they were a country-rock band and they wanted to be an awesome-rock band. Point goes to Wilco on that one) and the Onion A.V. Club dropped this critical turd nugget on the band, saying they’re capable of So Much More. They didn’t say what, exactly, that meant, which is irritating to me. I don’t know if I’ve ever used that phrase in a Bollocks! review, but if I do in the future, please call me on it. It’s lazy to say something like that without qualifying it. Saying a band is capable of So Much More isn’t saying you don’t like them – I don’t think you need to give a reason for simply not liking something (some people think you do, and I say “Fuck you” is reason enough. Sometimes you just know you don’t like something), but if you say a band is capable of more than what they’ve done on a given record, you’re implying knowledge of something they could’ve done and didn’t do. You fucking know-it-all.

Now, when I listen to an album, my primary concern is: does it consist of good songs? Wilco (The Album) consists not only of some good tunes but a few great ones. It’s a melting pot of everywhere Wilco has musically been in their career; “You Never Know” is worthy of Being There, “Sonny Feeling,” sounds like Summerteeth, “Country Disappeared” and “Deeper Down,” wouldn’t be out of place on Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. Maybe that’s the problem the critics have with Wilco (The Album), but I look it more like so: Wilco is capable of doing pretty much anything at this point and, with Wilco (The Album), they do a little of everything. And it sounds great. The more I listen to this album, the more I like it.

It opens, naturally, with “Wilco (The Song)” which is a literal love letter to the listener (“a sonic shoulder for your to cry on,” Tweedy sings before adding, in case you were unsure, that “Wilco will love you, baby”) and is one of the catchiest tunes Wilco has done since “The Late Greats.” “Wilco (The Song)” is followed by one of the two most beautiful tracks on the album, “Deeper Down,” (the song features a reference to triremes – you don’t hear a lot of people singing about Greco-Roman warships much these days. And, for all you critics out there, they didn’t fucking do that on Yankee Hotel Foxtrot). The other super-beautiful track, perhaps the most beautiful on the album, is “Country Disappeared,” an  aching tune that has Tweedy singing, “every evening/ we can watch from above/ crushed cities like a bug”, describing the televised destruction of a once-great nation.

In 2006, I was discussing The Flaming Lips’ At War with the Mystics and I pointed out that the Lips got unfairly shit on for that record because their previous two albums were home runs and suddenly everyone was mad that they hit a triple. Most bands, it should be noted, don’t make it to first base much (for instance, bands like Nickelback dive in front of a pitch to get on base. You get the idea). I feel the same way about Wilco (The Album). Wilco has hit a couple of big home-runs in their career (their names are Summerteeth and Yankee Hotel Foxtrot), and they usually manage at least a ground-rule double (I’ll quit with the baseball metaphors in a minute – I am talking about baseball, right?). Oh, and let’s not forget their 10th inning, 2 guys out, buzzer-beating grand slam collaboration with Billy Bragg, Mermaid Avenue.

Sure, Wilco (The Album) isn’t perfect, but perfect albums are hard to come by. Sgt. Pepper’s is perfect, London Calling is perfect, Ziggy Stardust is perfect – you see how stiff the competition is there. But who cares? I don’t only listen to perfect albums. YHF might be perfect (hell, I’m not finding much wrong on Summerteeth either) or it might not, but with Wilco (The Album), Jeff Tweedy and company have most certainly punted a double-bogie hat trick right over the net and out of the fucking park.

The Best Albums of My Life #21: Summerteeth

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There was a three-year span when I was in college where I was a single dude who pretty much thought I was gonna be a single dude for a very long time.  That period, starting as it did with a breakup, did not begin very well for me. It ended brilliantly, and I attribute it to two key factors: 1) I had (and still have) amazing friends and 2) I found Wilco.

The first Wilco album I heard was Yankee Hotel Foxtrot because I saw trailers for I Am Trying to Break Your Heart and was smitten deeply with any band who could so brazenly flip off their label and fight to put out the album they wanted to put out (if you’ve seen the movie, you know that Wilco was dropped by a subsidiary of AOL-Time Warner and then later picked up by Nonesuch, a subsidiary of the same. This, to me, is as funny as a televangelist getting busted for snorting meth off a male prostitute’s ass – in other words, it’s fucking hilarious). The fact that the music was a-fucking-mazing didn’t hurt. The second Wilco album I heard was Summerteeth and, in some ways, though I still like YHF better, Summerteeth is the album that I really identify with that three year period of loneliness, drinking, smoking too much, and all the things you do when you’re thinking you’re gonna be alone for the rest of your life. (Note: I’m not being emo here, nor was I at the time: for a while, yeah, I was heartbroken, but I think I can provide witnesses to verify that I was never a whiny bitch about it) In some way, for me, Summerteeth (and Wilco’s music in general) was like a guidebook for how to wear loneliness well.

Much of Summerteeth deals with the downside of love, or love coming to an end, although there are moments of sweetness like “We’re Just Friends,” (a song I listened to about five times in a row the night I got together with the girl that ended my three year drought – she’s my fiance now. I was especially enamored, that evening, of the lines “make some coffee/ to hold me up”) and “Pieholden Suite”. But the album starts with “Can’t Stand It,” where Jeff Tweedy sings “no love’s as random/ as God’s love/ I can’t stand it” (the song also fades out on a jaunty refrain of “Your prayers/ will never/ be answered again”, which pretty much sums up how I felt at the time) and only gets darker, lyrically. “Via Chicago” opens with one of my ten favorite opening lines ever: “I dreamed about killing you again last night/ and it felt all right to me” and “ELT” asks, “Oh, what have I been missing/ wishing that you were dead?”, although Tweedy somewhat apologizes a line later by saying, “I didn’t mean to be so disturbing/ so far from home.” The real trick here is that many of the songs are set against a bouncy, pop-savvy musical background, thanks in no small part to the talents of the late Mr. Jay Bennett.

The combination of the catchy music and dark lyrics make Summerteeth one of the best breakup albums of all time, but they also make it something that transcends that narrow purpose. Years later, in a happy relationship and planning a wedding, I can still listen to Summerteeth and enjoy its musical riches without needing it to drown my sorrows (now, if Tweedy and company could write an album that helps me deal with shitty L.A. people who smack into your car in the middle of the night, flee the scene, have no insurance, and the slow-as-molasses garage that takes forever and fucking day to fix said smashed car, that would be an album would probably be my musical crutch du jour). There might be a lesson in there to the emo kids in the audience – it’s great for you to express your heartache and frustration ‘n’ shit, but you might (maybe) wanna give a thought to the quality of the music you’re making and how it’s gonna sound years from now when you’re all growed up and not in the same place personally. What’s great about Summerteeth is that it is a mighty chronicle of romance cracking up on the rocks, but it’s also so melodically gorgeous that it can still be a satisfying listen for people who aren’t sadsacks.

This is not to deny the power of albums or bands that you listen to only for specific moods or times in you life – after I stumbled on Wilco’s music, there was hardly a party at my house that didn’t end with me either listening to their stuff on my computer or playing it on my guitar (when I found the Tweedy song “Nothing” from Uncle Tupelo’s second album, I was also deeply smitten – the chorus: “Don’t/ call it nothing/ it might be all/ we’ll ever have”) and the music served as a balm against my loneliness and generally feelings of inadequacy when it came to the opposite sex. Not gonna lie, I spent a good deal of those three years up my own ass about being lonely but when I finally made it out to the light of day, Summerteeth was still there for me in all its busted-ass glory. But I promise we’re just friends.