The older Tom Waits gets, the less complacent and more frayed he becomes. Waits started in the early '70s as a bluesy balladeer, but 1983's "Swordfishtrombones" marked the birth of his new roles: carnival barker, seedy tour guide for the petty criminal, fallen preacher, wistful romantic. His music veered toward clanging, trash-can-lid percussion, pump organs, banjoes and greasy guitars.
"Mule Variations'" first three songs exemplify Waits' modi operandi: Cascading bass and wry lyrics propel "Big in Japan"; "Lowside of the Road" sounds like a sinewy work song delivered by someone you wouldn't want to meet in a dark alley; and "Hold On" submerges in sentimental longings and regret. This 16-song CD, Waits' first in six years, initially seems fascinating, in the way his work always is, but familiar. Then about halfway through -- starting with "Cold Water" and peaking with the marvelously strange "Chocolate Jesus" -- the desire and conviction become startling. It's like Waits has just been dunked in the river, and we get to watch from the banks, squinting and blinking at his faith.