When anything reminiscent of the 40s is written about, it’s usually labeled some level of Noir. I won’t get into a splitting of hairs or a deep discussion on why Noir is a very specific thing and not just a blanket statement for black and white films of a certain era. This is about Tom Waits. This is about Foreign Affairs, his fifth album, and while Noir is an appropriate term to use here, I think, there’s a lot more going on.
These aren’t necessarily concept albums, but the overall feel here is that we’re peeking at moments and characters that exist in the gaps and overlaps of different films and genres of the 40s and into the 50s. But there’s definitely a postmodern twist here. For starters there’s a duet with Bette Midler, which in 1977, given the style of music both artists were working in, is a no-brainer. “I Never Talk to Strangers” is the type of thing you’d expect from some long forgotten musical screwball romcom, except it’s somehow much more honest than you remember these types of movies being. The leading man has a raspy, boozy drawl that surely would have been cleaned up for the silver screen. Wait, this isn’t some fancy nightclub these two are in. This is a dive, on the outskirts of the movie you’re familiar with. These characters didn’t make it on screen. Lush orchestration notwithstanding, this is still the Tom Waits of skid row I’ve come to love through the previous albums. This saloon they’re in is likely closing soon and only drunken stragglers remain, looking for that one night stand that will help them forget they are just strangers in a cruel world.
Back in about 93, during one of my early attempts at college, a long and meandering tale of a journey, worthy of discussion elsewhere, maybe, I took a course on Beat Literature and learned all about Kerouac, Ginsberg, Burroughs and of course, Neal Cassady and their exploits crossing the country in the 40s and 50s, back and forth and aimless, on the outskirts of the mainstream, never on the screen of those black and white movies, hardly discussed, looking for nobody knows what or whether they ever really found anything, but the adventure, the adventure was everything and the flow could not be contained. At the time, I only barely understood what it was all about, though. I just loved the long sentences. But it all comes together in Tom Waits, of course. He’s the guide I needed to really get it. It’s there from the beginning, in his jazz poetry and outcast introspections, but on this album, he finally names them in “Jack & Neal/California Here I Come,” where he tells a tale that could be a lost chapter of any of Kerouac’s books, putting himself right in the mix with his would-be mentors as coffeehouse jazz punctuates his pun and fun-filled story, culminating in a few bars of “California Here I Come,” which gives it an air of glamour befitting the legends he’s been singing about. Of course, the only reason he can pull this off is because he’s established his beat credentials in every album up until this point.
If anything on this album is true Noir, it’s “Potter’s Field,” with it’s lurid narrative about “dealing high Chicago in the mud” and bleeding buttonholes as the horns and drums swell dramatically. You can almost hear the shadows falling across a body found/lost in an alley. But like most of Waits, it never comes across as retro or nostalgic. It just is. It’s the very definition of timeless while being firmly rooted in a time that is long in Wait’s past, a time he couldn’t have known. He somehow romanticizes these things while keeping them authentic. Perhaps this is because he focuses on the humanity and the everyday affairs of his protagonists. He’s presenting sketches that are fully fleshed out and have depth. These are not mere caricatures and the music is never kitschy or distracting. That’s no small feat.
All things considered, my favorite, so far, is still Small Change, but the atmosphere on Foreign Affairs is going to make this an album I come back to and reevaluate often. I’ve listened to it several times while writing and thinking about this, and each pass opens it up to something different. It’s rich and layered in a way that invites attempts at a cohesive narrative interpretation of the songs, while getting lost in the atmosphere of the music.. I said earlier these aren’t necessarily concept albums, but in a lot of ways, they can be. Granted, you can impose a narrative on anything, but in this case, I think Waits has enough depth and detail to merit more than just passive listening.