“What’s He Building?“ by Tom Waits on his album Mule Variations exemplifies the irrationality of humans and the irony and hipcorisy of human curiosity and anxiety. With effectively no melodic portions and a complete lack of any harmony, I’m not sure I would even call this music, but it serves my purpose as it’s one of the only works of music that I listen to that isn’t instrumental, or has sappy mid-century jazz lyrics, or has completely indecipherably esoteric lyrics. The “song” is a set of stanzas consisting of a man speculating on the doings of his neighbor. The neighbor is introduced as a mysterious character with unknown motives, what really is he building in there?
What’s he building in there?
With that hook light on the stairs What’s he building in there?
I’ll tell you one thing
He’s not building a playhouse for the children
What’s he building in there?
Tom Waits builds towards the final revelation throughout the entire piece, primarily using imagery. But not a sort of emotional or moving imagery. A kind of grim, familiarly dingy imagery. The imagery focusses on the less than pleasant, but not unpleasant. The underside of a sink, a bottle of formaldehyde, a dying lawn, and a tire swing. These innocuous objects become profound because they are mentioned. Their very mundane nature is precisely what gives them power when they are mentioned. The narrator’s fixation on the mundaneness of the whole scenario is what gives it significance, and what makes on question what is he building in there?
And I keep seeing the blue light of a
He has a router and a table saw
In addition to Waits’ usage of mundane imagery to further the intrigue of the scenario, repetition is liberally used to ground us, to bring us back to the question of “what is he building in there?” This repetition keeps one focussed on the mystery and the unknown. Every now and again it is eerily interjected into the words after a seemingly pointless and harmless piece of information is received.
I heard he has an ex-wife
In some place called Mayors Income, Tennessee
And he used to have a consulting business in Indonesia
But what is he building in there?
What the hell is building in there?
And finally, by the end of the song, the narrator remarks that
What’s he building in there? We have a right to know…
Now ask yourself, “what do we know about this mysterious neighbor?” Come to think of it, quite a bit actually, we actually know a good bit about his life. This mysterious character is not so mysterious at all. This suspicious man across the street with his alterior motives is doing nothing abnormal. The constant reference to innocuous and simple daily objects serves to show us that this neighbor, is in fact, not doing anything abnormal or unwonted by any means. But what do we know of the narrator? This narrator who is so obsessed with his nieghbor and his doings? By the end the real enigma is the narrator. The neighbor is not the one we should be concerned about. After all, the neighbor is not the one stalking his nieghbor. While this song may not be exceptionally deep or emotional, I believe that through the mundane diction, the repetition, and the final revelation, Waits reveals several truths about human nature. First, information can always be skewed by how it is presented. The first couple of times that I listened to this “song”, I truthfully saw the narrator as a concerned citizen. The power of the context in which information is presented is everything. The mysterious background noises, the low, gruff, voice. And yet, by simply reading out the lyrics, we see that clearly the narrator is the one with a loose scew, not the neighbor. In addition to this, I believe that our inability to see our own hypocrisy is also a primary theme of this work. The narrator can not see that he is the very embodiment of that which criticizes. The whole “song” primarily serves to highlight the anxious and pernicious shortcomings of humans by presenting this facts in an absurd but telling manner.