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Music / Mule Variations

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Come on up to the house!

Mule Variations is the thirteenth album by Tom Waits, released in 1999 through ANTI- and Epitaph Records. At the time it was his first album in six years since The Black Rider (1993) and thus highly anticipated by fans. It is generally seen as one of his best records and won a Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Folk Album.


  1. "Big in Japan" (4:05)
  2. "Lowside of the Road" (2:59)
  3. "Hold On" (5:33)
  4. "Get Behind The Mule" (6:52)
  5. "House Where Nobody Lives" (4:14)
  6. "Cold Water" (5:23)
  7. "Pony" (4:32)
  8. "What's He Building In There?" (3:20)
  9. "Black Market Baby" (5:02)
  10. "Eyeball Kid" (4:25)
  11. "Picture In A Frame" (3:39)
  12. "Chocolate Jesus" (3:55)
  13. "Georgia Lee" (4:24)
  14. "Filipino Box Spring Hog" (3:09)
  15. "Take It With Me" (4:24)
  16. "Come On Up To The House" (4:36)

What's He Troping In There?

  • Abandoned Area: "House Where Nobody Lives":
    Without love it ain't nothin'
    But a house, a house where nobody lives
  • Ambiguously Evil: Both characters in "What's He Building In There?". The narrator may be right in suspecting the subject, but he could also be insane so, it's left ambiguous.
  • Artistic License – Biology: "Eyeball Kid" about a child who is one and all eyeball.
  • Artistic License – Religion: In-universe. The protagonist in "Chocolate Jesus" prays to a chocolate figurine of Jesus Christ, instead of going to Church on Sunday.
    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
  • As the Good Book Says...: "Cold Water":
    I'm reading the Bible by a 40 watt bulb
  • Badass Longcoat: Waits on the cover.
  • Bizarre Taste in Food: "Filipino Box Spring Hog" is about a pig being cooked on the box spring of a bed, something Waits once did when he lived in Union Avenue in L.A.
    Waits: That would fall in the category of surrural. Beefheart-ian. When we lived on Union Avenue in L.A., we had parties. We sawed the floorboards out of the living room, and we took the bed, the box spring, and first dug out the hole and filled it with wood, poured gasoline on it, and lit a fire. And the box spring over the top, that was the grill. We brought in a pig and cooked it right there.
  • Circus of Fear: "Eyeball Kid", where Waits plays a carnival barker calling people to come and watch a child being one and all eyeball.
  • Come to Gawk: See Circus of Fear.
  • Creepy Monotone: "What's He Building In There?"
  • Cutlery Escape Aid: Mentioned in "Get Behind The Mule".
    I'm diggin' all the way to China
    With a silver spoon
    While the hangman fumbles with the noose, boys
    The hangman fumbles with the noose
    She gotta get behind the mule
    In the mornin' and plow
  • Deliberately Monochrome: The black-and-white album cover.
  • Desperately Looking for a Purpose in Life: "Come On Up To The House":
    The world is not my home
    I'm just passing through
    [...] Does life seem nasty, brutish and short
    Come on up to the house
    The seas are stormy and you can't find no port
    Come on up to the house
  • Digging to China: "Get Behind The Mule":
    I'm diggin' all the way to China with a silver spoon
    While the hangman fumbles with the noose, boys
    The hangman fumbles with the noose
    She gotta get behind the mule
    In the mornin' and plow
  • Faceless Eye: "Eyeball Kid" is about a child who is born as just an eye and details his life as a successful circus freak.
  • Face on the Cover: Waits shown from the back.
  • Germans Love David Hasselhoff: In-Universe subject of "Big In Japan".
    I got the moon, I got the cheese. I got the whole damn nation on its knees
  • Have You Seen My God?: "Georgia Lee", about a young child who died in the street:
    Why wasn't God watching?
    Why wasn't God listening?
    Why wasn't God there for Georgia Lee?
  • Inspirationally Disadvantaged: "Eyeball Kid". The narrator is a carnival barker trying to talk up a sideshow performer who seems to be just a disembodied eye. As the song progresses, the Eyeball Kid's tale moves from the gritty to the inspirational to the downright messianic, all to sell tickets.
    We're all lost in the wilderness, we're blind as can be
    He come down to teach us how to really see
    Hallelujah, hallelujah, hallelujah
    So give it up and throw me down a couple of quid
    Everybody wants to see the Eyeball Kid
  • Location Song: "Big In Japan", a song where the protagonist prides himself being a huge star in this country.
  • Non-Appearing Title: The album title doesn't appear in any of the lyrics, though there is a track called "Get Behind The Mule".
  • Obsession Song: "What's He Building In There?", while not a "song" in the actual sense, describes a man who is obsessed with finding out what his neighbour is doing on the other side of the street.
  • One-Woman Song: "Georgia Lee".
  • One-Word Title: "Pony".
  • The Power of Love: "Picture In A Frame":
    I love you baby and I always will
    Ever since I put your picture in a frame
  • Precious Photo: "Picture In A Frame", as described above.
  • Product Placement: "Filipino Box Spring Hog" mentions "Rum Crook", an American cigar brand.
  • Properly Paranoid: Possibly. "What's He Building In There?" is a haunting track about a man spying at his neighbour and all the questions that come up in his mind when he is watching him. It's never made entirely clear whether the narrator of the song is just an over-paranoid and unstable person fixating on some innocent and harmless (if slightly reclusive and unconventional) neighbour, or whether the neighbour actually is up to something very sinister indeed...
  • Questioning Title?: "What's He Building In There?"
  • Real Life Writes the Plot:
    • "Eyeball Kid" mentions that the child was born on December 7, 1949, which is Waits's own birthday.
    • Kathleen mentioned in "Filipino Box Spring Hog" is a shout-out to Waits's wife, Kathleen Brennan, who is his co-lyricist.
    • On a sadder note, "Georgia Lee" is about Georgia Lee Moses, a 12-year-old who was murdered.
  • Repurposed Pop Song: "Filipino Box Spring Hog" was originally meant for Bone Machine (1992).
  • Sanity Slippage Song: It's one way of interpreting "What's He Building In There?".
  • Shout-Out:
    • "Hold On" describes a woman with "Monroe hips".
    • "Filipino Box Spring Hog" quotes from the nursery rhyme "Sing A Song Of Sixpence".
      Four and twenty blackbirds baked in a pie
    • The line "cold was the night, hard was the ground" from "Georgia Lee" is a reference to the blues song "Cold Was The Night, Hard Was The Ground" by Blind Willie Johnson.
    • "Come on Up To The House" references Thomas Hobbes's 17th century book "Leviathan", a treatise on political philosophy.
  • Special Guest: Larry LaLonde (Primus) plays guitar on "Big in Japan" and Charlie Musselwhite plays harp on "Get Behind The Mule", "Chocolate Jesus", "Filipino Box Spring Hog", and "Come On Up To The House".
  • Spoken Word in Music: "What's he Building In There?" features no singing and not much music either. It's just Waits wondering what the hell his neighbour is doing across the street, set to a haunting soundtrack.
  • Through the Eyes of Madness: See Sanity Slippage Song.
  • The Trope Kid:
    • One of the criminals from "Get Behind The Mule" is known as the Pockmarked Kid.
    • And of course there's "The Eyeball Kid".
  • The Un-Reveal: "What's He Building In There?". We never find out what the protagonist's neighbour is building in there. It's sort of the point, because the song is about suburban paranoia. He asserts "we have a right to know", but in fact we don't.
  • Your Favorite: "Filipino Box Spring Hog":
    't ain't the mincemeat filigree
    And it ain't the turkeyneck stew
    And it ain't them bruleed okra seeds
    Though she made them a-special for you