The admiring audience that Tom Waits built up with his early work now worries about him in a way that does his derelict’s persona proud: when is that old boy gonna straighten up? Closing Time was a quiet classic in 1973, but with The Heart of Saturday Night, Small Change and Nighthawks at the Diner, the singer songwriter’s beaten raps, overflowing with pathos and Americana, had turned self-indulgent.
Foreign Affairs, fortunately, shows a resuscitation of Waits’ voice and ability to write moving lyrics. “A Sight for Sore Eyes,” like his earlier “Tom Traubert’s Blues.” reaches through its borrowed melody to grasp you by the shoulder; the speaker is a still-sharp, piano-playing rummy, desperately lonely and trying to sound offhand.
Likewise. “Burma Shave” cannot be ignored. As elsewhere on this spare, unsweetened album (no overdubs or multitracking). Waits plays his own trailing piano accompaniment as he stacks up fresh, filmic images that make you care about this cowboy punk and the small-town girl who hopped into his wreck. His gruff, stolid singing gives us too little, and a bright trumpet coda gives us too much, but the song’s integrity survives.
Waits does repeat some mistakes from his last two albums: the chief sin he can’t shake is an overabundance of the facile, researched-and-rehearsed jive talk that is meant to dazzle but in fact fatigues the listener. “Foreign Affair,” a song of no musical distinction, piles up smart-guy words just coy enough to fall short of a Cole Porter parody. A second puzzling number is “Barber Shop,” which portrays some insufferable Penrod (who talks like Satchmo) bugging two neighborhood barbers.
But at least Waits is, aside from the lengthy “Potter’s Field,” no longer the rag picker of mission-house cliches that we heard on the four live sides of Nighthanks. His fascination with what Allen Ginsberg called the “spontaneous bop prosody” of Jack Kerouac is hammered into a deft road rap called “Jack & Neal.” If “a redhead in a uniform will always get you horny” is not a quote from Dean Moriarty, it deserves to be. The song works as a Keystone Kops montage stitched together with a tenor sax.
It seems that Waits has gotten out from under the seedy scatman’s persona that marred his recent work. His singing again shows traces of that gritty but well-modulated, Fred Neil-like style that made Closing Time so insistent; his duet with Bette Midler on “I Never Talk to Strangers” is ragged but right.
Tom Waits is never less than intent and honest — he pushes to his own slow, heartfelt beat. Uneven though Foreign Affairs may be, it shows that Waits is still the kind of performer who can make us say. “You must be reading my mail.”