Tom Waits is an imaginary hobo. He cruises the oddball corners of American pop culture, collecting the deft and moving and loopy short takes he sees and imagines there. Back in 1973 Closing Time first caught Waits’s grizzled voice on disc, growling about unguarded moments in real lives. Unlike that era’s Me Generation singer-songwriter crop, Waits made you feel other people, because he did. He was ironic or direct, caustic or unabashedly torn open by loss and hope and love and fear–the pivotal emotions that daily face folks who don’t live inside recording and movie and TV studios, ivory towers, newspaper and magazine offices, the Beltway or their own swollen heads.

When Tom Waits’s death-and-sound-obsessed 1992 disc Bone Machine won him his first Grammy, Rolling Stone, by way of yuppified praise, summarized his output to date this way: “For more than twenty years, Tom Waits has chronicled the grotesque losers of the seedy underworld.” More revealing and to the point, Bruce Springsteen covered Waits’s “Jersey Girl”–one master chronicler’s homage to another.

Waits’s long career falls into two congruent pieces. For his first ten years and eight recordings, the SoCal boho (remember Rickie Lee Jones?) collected noirish pictures for his outsider’s album of Americana. Meanwhile, he started acting in 1978, with a small part in Sylvester Stallone’s Paradise Alley. He’s notched four Coppola flicks, Robert Altman’s Short Cuts, plus a half-dozen others since, but his most telling performance was in Jim Jarmusch’s Down By Law (1986). That offbeat prison-break movie teamed him with a downtown-music leader named John Lurie and a then-little-known Italian comic named Roberto Benigni.

What led Waits to outsider auteurs like Jarmusch and Robert Wilson (Waits’s last album was 1993’s The Black Rider, his music for the folktale-based opera Wilson directed) was a switch thrown by his eccentric muse. With Swordfishtrombones (1983), Waits hopped a creative freight train into the New York music scene–sound-scramblers like Lurie and John Zorn and Laurie Anderson and Run-DMC, all with their own ideas about recombining and recycling ideas. Swordfishtrombones ditched hi-fi recording and noir songwriting for impressionistic soundscapes dreamed in rude facilities–bathroom echo chambers, a concrete-and-wood bunker-studio on a chicken farm, a Mexican hotel room where he battered a dresser to pieces while screaming into a cheap cassette recorder. Waits amassed an eighteen-wheeler’s worth of weird instruments–calliopes, Balinese metal aunglongs, glass harmonicas, bowed saw, pump organ, accordion, Mellotron, bass boo-bams, brake drums, parade drums, even one he built called a condundrum. No big surprise that Waits wrote the foreword for Gravikords, Whirlies, and Pyrophones (Ellipsis Arts), an interesting book-plus-CD pack about strange soundmakers.

Hanging out with all those grotesques over the decades has helped Waits grow into an American original, a wonderfully gifted miniaturist with a romantic’s touch and bruised ironies, like Sherwood Anderson.

Mule Variations (Epitaph) is Waits’s first album since 1993, but it’s unmistakably the sound of him opening up his outsider scrapbook again. A sharp pal who’s a fan heard the advance CD and said to me, “Good, huh?” He paused, a shade defensive. “A lot like the last two.” Another beat. “But that’s who he is.” Exactly.

It’s hard not to be yourself when you’re as much who you are as Waits is. With co-writer/producer and wife Kathleen Brennan, he covers so much stylistic and dramatic ground, you could call him a musical avant-archivist. Mule Variations naturally catalogues a lot of American music. There’s gospel (“Come On Up to the House”), parlor songs and Civil War ballads (“Take It With Me,” “Pony,” “Georgia Lee”), jazz noir (“Black Market Baby”), Stax-Volt soul (“House Where Nobody Lives”), jungle-funk (“Big in Japan”), gently buoyant Tex-Mex (“Hold On”). There’s even electroblues surrealism straight out of Captain Beefheart (“Eyeball Kid,” “Filipino Box Spring Hog”). And in “Chocolate Jesus” (whose chorus runs: “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”) there’s more than a hint of Weill and Brecht.

An old-blues hound, Waits now makes his own. “Lowside of the Road” rides a lo-fi sonic rumble made by instruments with names like Optigon and Chumbus and Dousengoni. The booze-soaked raunch called “Cold Water” stumbles along like an imaginary hobo who’s hooked down some LSD with his hooch; Marc Ribot’s bitingly thick-tongued guitar is hilarious. “Get Behind the Mule” uses delta-blues doggedness, a saying attributed to Robert Johnson’s father and Chicago blues veteran Charlie Musselwhite’s lurking harmonica to set jabbing vignettes of murder and fear that finish with a simple moral: “Pin your ear to the wisdom post/Pin your eye to the line/Never let the weeds get higher/than the garden/Always keep a sapphire in your mind/Always keep a diamond in your mind.”

Our imaginary hobo ain’t churchgoing, but he believes that how you live matters. “This world is not my home/I’m just passin’ thru,” Waits bellows in “Come On Up to the House,” a few lines after wisecracking, “Come down off the cross/We can use the wood.” That’s characteristic. He holds nothing sacred, but like most of the people he meets, he has a code of ethics. And so the lyrics put old queries in moving ways and aren’t embarrassed about exploring how most folks understand their lives: “If there’s love in a house/It’s a palace for sure/Without love…/It ain’t nothin but a house/A house where nobody lives”; “You been whipped by the forces that are inside you”; or “sometimes there’s nothin left to do/You gotta hold on, hold on, take my hand, I’m standing right here, you gotta hold on.” Of course, the tunes also regularly turn maxims inside out. “Take It With Me” undercuts the cliché with a list of impressions and memories and the love of another, the things that survive. “Black Market Baby” is about “…a diamond that/Wants to stay coal.” But Waits never lets hipster cool mask genuine heartbreak. Take the story of “Georgia Lee,” in which the chorus returns over and over to the unadorned, chilling question, “Why wasn’t God watching?”

Waits has a smashed foghorn of a voice, somewhere between Beefheart’s and Howlin’ Wolf’s, and he uses it to ruminate and yelp and scream and croon and plead and threaten. It can be a blunt, heavy instrument, but he wields it with incongruous dexterity–even, at times, lightness. The ways he can ask “Why wasn’t God watching?” make your pulse heat up. His clashing vocal overtones can surround a note the way a clot forms around a gash.

You can’t make a hobo, even an imaginary one, flinch easily, and Waits’s scrapbook is full of things we’d mostly rather sidle past or turn our backs on.

As in “What’s He Building?”: Musique-concrete clanging, hissing and feedback set spoken lyrics that start like this: “What’s he building in there?/What the hell is he building/In there?/He has subscriptions to those/Magazines…He never/waves when he goes by/He’s hiding something from/the rest of us…He’s all/to himself…I think I know/why…” It ends starkly, “We have a right to know…”

With all these snapshots rolled into his knapsack, Waits is an American bricoleur. Before you grab a brick to heave at me, let’s say that just means he’s one of our very own cranks from a very long line, the yowling and yawping sort of romantic barbarian seer who gets tossed into the tank by bored cops and takes in the turned backs and locked doors as he passes through town, sympathizes with the pregnant women and Vietnam vets begging on the freeways, steps into the cool and still graveyard for a nap, and then hunkers down with an old stray dog in front of the furniture-store window to catch a little TV. In fact, you probably don’t want a guy like him hanging out in your neighborhood, even if he is named Walt Whitman or Harry Partch or Kenneth Burke, Woody Guthrie or Charlie Mingus or Allen Ginsberg. You’re thinking 911 if he’s named Howlin’ Wolf or Lenny Bruce or Captain Beefheart or Richard Pryor. Why put up with Tom Waits?

Here’s one reason: He can show you what you already know and make you believe it again.