More Dylan Than Dylan

Tom Waits comes to an interview prepared. He brings notes. He sidles up to the counter at Jerry's, a checkered-tablecloth joint in Monte Rio, Calif., orders scrambled eggs and coffee and pulls a worn and flattened notebook out of his back pocket. "I have some answers here," he growls, positioning a pair of round, Coke-bottle eyeglasses on his nose. "They might not be appropriate to the questions you're asking, but they're answers nonetheless." OK, here goes: Waits, 49, has just released his first album in six years, "Mule Variations," on the punk-rock indie label Epitaph. Where's he been all this time? Waits dutifully flips through the notebook. Over his shoulder I can see spindly capital letters sprawling across pages. "No peeking!" he chides. Finally he settles on a page. "A woman in Sebastopol had to be freed by the firefighters because she was trapped in a pair of designer jeans," he intones. "They used wire cutters and needle-nose pliers." He puts the notebook down and swallows some coffee. "I tell you, the news around here is remarkable. Now, what was the question?"

Oh, never mind. We could obsess about where Waits has been, or we could just be really, really glad he's back. "Mule Variations," his 17th album, is full of the kind of gnarled eclecticism that has become his hallmark. There are grumbled takes on Delta blues ("Lowside of the Road"), gospel shout-outs ("Come On Up to the House") and raspy stabs at George Jones-style country ("House Where Nobody Lives"). But Waits's cast of characters--the dreamers and wanderers and no-gooders from albums like "The Heart of Saturday Night" in 1974 and "Rain Dogs" in 1985--seem to have a new sense of purpose. They're searching for stuff, be it an answer, a home or just a creed they can live by.

Most of the songs are collaborations with his wife of 18 years, Kathleen Brennan. It's she who encourages him to throw all his disparate influences together. "Some people organize everything," he explains. "I always find myself with a box, and in that box you'll find silverware, rice, cassettes, a toothbrush, an old wine bottle. Once we were moving and I found I had a pizza in with my records! Because the pizza box was the exact same size. So I don't always have a method. There's things that don't necessarily belong. I still keep them in there."

Waits's madness has made him one of the most deeply admired songwriters in pop today. To the postboomer generation, he's more Dylan than Dylan himself. Waits's melting-pot approach to Americana, his brilliant narratives and his hardiness against commercial trends have made him the ultimate icon for the alternative-minded. Epitaph signed Waits partly out of a belief that his ethos resonates with its roster of skatepunks and headbangers. Waits, for his part, appreciated Epitaph's counterintuitive approach to marketing. "They have a group on the label that was hellbent on getting its record off the radio, for God's sake," he says. "The record company was behind them 100 percent." That fervor spreads even to the musicians who work with him. "We recorded in this old chicken ranch," says Beck guitarist Smokey Hormel, who played on "Mule Variations." "There's this little room with a barn door. He kept telling me, 'It sounds too pretty, I'm going to open the barn door.' So he did! You could hear the dogs in the background and see the people walking by on the road below. It was very rustic and homey. You forget that you're playing into a $20,000 microphone."

Waits grew up in Whittier and Pomona, Calif., but he gets hedgy when asked to supply details about his past. "I'm more comfortable making stuff up than I am telling the truth," he says. Finally he lets this slip: "My dad could stand on the beach and do a flip and come back down on his feet." His mother was a schoolteacher; she sang four-part harmony in an Andrews Sisters-type group. Nowadays Waits relishes his private life with Kathleen and their kids: two teenagers and a 5-year-old. He quit drinking and smoking. So he has settled down. I tell Waits there's a piano ballad on his new album, "Take It With Me," that makes me cry, mostly because of the last verse.

He droops his head bashfully. "That's a very vulnerable song," he says. "We wrote that together, Kathleen and I, and that felt good. Two people who are in love writing a song about being in love." Then he puts two triangles of toast in front of his eyes, because I'm crying just thinking about it, and maybe behind the toast he's tearing up, too.