The people who populate Tom Waits’ songs are deeply rooted in 20th-century American mythology. They come from tough-guy novels, pulp magazines, radio serials and film noir. Waits isn’t interested in the heroes of this fiction, but with the people who exist on its fringes: cabbies, newsstand dealers, shoeshine boys and all-night waitresses. In the perverted language of American politics, they are known as “the little people,” but Waits would agree with writer Joseph Mitchell that “they are as big as you are, whoever you are.”
With his cigarette dangling from his mouth, his cap slapped over his forehead, Waits slouches through these streets presenting himself not as a detached observer but as a full-fledged native. He is, of course, an avowed sentimentalist in love with a place and an era that no longer exist — a time when people ate mulligan stew and called a five-dollar bill a “fin.” Playing rudimentary jazz piano and singing in a strangled cigarette-and-whiskey voice, Waits is at once an extremely affected anachronism and a brilliant chronicler of our past.
That duality persists on Small Change. While he has all but abandoned the Kerouac-like raps which crippled his last album (Nighthawks at the Diner) and has returned to the melodic style which highlighted his first two LPs, Waits has broken no new ground. His songs focus on mood rather than narrative. And the mood of Small Change is the same as his previous albums: the late-night blues where fatigue and romance mingle. The piano and occasional strings and saxophone relentlessly reinforce this atmosphere. His language still sparkles, the one-liners still dazzle, but his purview remains stringently narrow. Though he continues to write superb songs (particularly “Tom Traubert’s Blues” and “Invitation to the Blues”), Waits is now repeating himself. Unless he expands his musical foundations and investigates the themes of his world, Waits will remain an appealing, but limited, artist.