Tom Waits, Foreign Affairs
A well-traveled collection with a handful of wrong turns
A mixed bag of slick jazz and sprawling narratives, Foreign Affairs is a well-traveled collection that takes a handful of wrong turns. Recorded and mixed directly to two-track tape, the album strives for spontaneity, though it’s hard to swing when there’s a studio orchestra in the mix. “I Never Talk to Strangers” is a near-miraculous fusion of styles, a giddy, barbed duet that pits Waits’s disheveled growl against Bette Midler’s acid-tongued warble. Not every odd-sock combination comes together: “Potter’s Field” tries to bridge the album’s disparate halves, but the full-scale orchestration clashes with the spare contours of Waits’s spoken-word slur. “Burma Shave,” however, is a miniature masterpiece, an impressionistic story of lovers running from the law scored to Waits’s fluid piano and a late-breaking muted trumpet; it’s like Bonnie and Clyde as told by Miles Davis. Waits’s lounge lizard persona is starting to wear thin, but he punches right through the holes and surges on to something more mysterious and mercurial.