His confidence bolstered by a European tour and increasing accolades, the next Tom Waits album proved to be his best yet. Small Change continued the barroom feel, with a healthy supply of Beat references and, for the first time, full orchestration on some tracks.
Immediately, the sound on the opening track is a departure. “Tom Traubert’s Blues” is less commonly known by its subtitle (“Four Sheets To The Wind In Copenhagen”) than its chorus, which borrows from the Australian standard “Waltzing Matilda”. The song, with its gorgeous string accompaniment, wanders through vivid imagery thanks to the poetry of the lyrics. “Step Right Up” is a trip in the other direction, its content spat out like the late-night TV commercials from which the words are derived. It’s back to the bar for “Jitterbug Boy”, a rambling monologue of a braggart, before “I Wish I Was In New Orleans” brings back the dreamer from “San Diego Serenade”. All of the sides styles collide in the fabulous “The Piano Has Been Drinking (Not Me)”, juxtaposing the puns from Nighthawks At The Diner with a genius backing.
Side two mirrors the first slightly, beginning with the tearjerking “Invitation To The Blues”. Part conversation and part observation, it’s a perfect portrait of a loser falling in love with a waitress. Speaking of which, “Pasties And A G-String” follows the narrator out of the bar next door to the strip club, embodied by the type depicted on the album cover. Suitably rebuffed, he returns to the rail to boast of a “Bad Liver And A Broken Heart”, in between an odd quote from “As Time Goes By”, and “The One That Got Away” is lamented by a finger-snapping hipster. A murder scene leads to a vivid description of the surrounding neighborhood in the title track, but rather than end on such a down note, the hopeful “I Can’t Wait To Get Off Work” shows another side of the type of person who might be up in the pre-dawn hours.
The songs on Small Change may cover a lot of the same territory, but Waits makes up for it with enough variety in the arrangements. In the process he set himself a standard that would be tough to maintain for a career, but for now, he’d recorded his best album.
Tom Waits Small Change (1976)—4