More persistent than obstinate, Tom Petty and Tom Waits have reigned for three decades in their respective musical realms, consistently cranking out acclaimed classics. Whether eccentric and experimental or rebellious and righteous, to paraphrase Petty, they won't back down.
Mule Variations (Epitaph)
Echo (Warner Bros.)
With playful ease, Petty's direct brand of rock remains vital on Echo (Warner Bros.), his new release with the Heartbreakers, their first since 1991. Waits' new recording, Mule Variations (Epitaph), has also been a long time—six years—coming. Echo reverberates with melancholic refrains while Waits maintains his eerie quality—a cross between Poe, Captain Beefheart, and Wolfman Jack—alternating between bluesy Leadbelly wails and hoarse, aching grumbling.
Both men create imaginative narratives with a cast of misfits and outcasts, and possess an uncanny ability to swing from the most endearing, tender ballads to the raunchiest tracks. They've mastered the art of weaving a deceptively simple tale, or spinning a worn phrase into something new—Waits' "There's no light in the tunnel/no irons in the fire" or Petty's "You gotta have rhino skin . . . elephant balls." Yet while Waits' junkyard image almost fits in with his lyrical lowlifes and edgy oddballs (especially given his growling delivery), Petty pines after dreamers and snarls about losers.
With his marriage broken up and his band back together, Petty's new collection of songs resounds with his recent trials and triumphs. Unflappable and relentlessness, his characters bounce back (as on the clever ad-libbed "Swingin": "She went down like Glen Miller/She went down like Sonny Liston"). This resilience is trademark Petty, ever since anthemic hits like "The Waiting" and "Breakdown." The plaintive "Room at the Top" affirms Petty's songwriting skill with lyrics that flow from the melodies.
On Mule Variations, Waits' beat-poet style, experimental instrumentation, and Kurt Weillish theatricality all come together to bear witness to his illustrious projects—from his 1973 debut, Closing Time, to a collaboration with William Burroughs and a well-received play, Frank's Wild Years, as well as the classic albums Swordfishtrombones and Bone Machine. The new disc opens with "Big in Japan," referencing his cult status—"I got the style but not the grace/I got the cards but not the luck/I got the jam but not the bread."
The 16 tracks were mostly co-written and co-produced with his wife, playwright Kathleen Brennan. Waits calls his sound surrural—rural and surreal—and apt description of tunes like "Lowside of the Road," set in dank bayou bowels, or the philosophical litany "Get Behind the Mule." He can shift from the haunting "Georgia Lee" to a wild, hollering dirge or twisted percussive minimalist number, then perform a timeless Tin Pan Alley tune.
From early days as a hybrid of Southern garage and Brit Invasion rock with a folkie Byrds touch, Petty has evolved into a rock icon who hangs with his heroes. Waits presides over the underworld pantheon. Having laid a foundation with an impressive body of work, the two Toms' current releases sustain their trend-transcending statesmenship in a world of fickle dabblers. These veterans abide, unscarred and unscathed.