Tom Waits’ capabilities as a storyteller continued on Foreign Affairs, which follows many of the approaches of Small Change. Drunken stumbles alternate with sweet melodies and truly unique turns of phrase.
The simple “Cinny’s Waltz” is a nice instrumental before the barroom lament for “Muriel”. But whatever he felt for that girl doesn’t keep him from hitting on Bette Midler throughout “I Never Talk To Strangers”. The duet goes flat a few times, but it’s still a masterful stream of conversation. Something of a detour occurs with the evocation of On The Road in “Jack & Neal”, its story swaggering into a chorus from “California Here I Come”. But after all that he’s still stuck in the bar, raising a glass alongside “A Sight For Sore Eyes” who just walked in.
The truly cinematic “Potter’s Field” is a nearly nine-minute monologue scored like a movie, complete with dramatic pauses and crescendos. Not the easiest of listening, but truly fascinating. Even more successful is “Burma Shave”, a tale of two people escaping nowhere only to find their common doom, with a simple bluesy piano punctuated only at the end by a startling trumpet. The mood is unfortunately broken by “Barber Shop”, one of the few Waits songs that seems to take place in daylight. Instead of the bar, here the old-timers meet for a haircut. The closing near title track, however, is one of his greatest pieces of poetry, bearing little of the weight of slang, but evoking the wonder of wanderlust.
Ultimately, Foreign Affairs finds Waits beginning to repeat himself, just as it can be tiring to listen to the same old drunk. But such experiments as “Potter’s Field” and “Burma Shave” show that he had the potential to develop, and maybe he was meant to be in movies after all.
Tom Waits Foreign Affairs (1977)—3