Tom Waits' fifth album for Asylum foreshadowed changes that would alter his career over the next six years. It signals a musical restlessness that fueled his next two records (Blue Valentine and Heartattack and Vine), and resulted in his writing a film score and leaving the label for Island, where he was given greater artistic control. He leans less on comic relief here and more on fully formed story songs. The album contains more ballads than most of his records do, but they were the most effective vehicles for the kind of storytelling he was trying to get to. The song "Perfect Strangers" inspired director Francis Ford Coppola to shape the characters for his film One from the Heart (he also convinced Waits to score it, leading to Waits' iconic collaboration with Crystal Gayle).
Produced and engineered by Bones Howe, Foreign Affairs was recorded live in studio by a quintet that included West Coast jazzmen Jack Sheldon on trumpet, saxophonist Frank Vicari, bassist Jim Hughart, and drummer Shelly Manne. Further accompaniment was provided by an orchestra arranged and conducted by Bob Alcivar. Introduced by the instrumental "Cindy's Waltz," which sounds like a cinematic cue, it's followed by the bluesy, alone-on-a-Saturday-night longing expressed in "Muriel." The aforementioned "Perfect Strangers" is a duet with Bette Midler. It offers a lyric dialogue between two beleaguered veterans who find themselves (again) the last patrons in a bar at closing time. Their clever, direct exchange is sweetened by smoky tenor sax flourishes, swelling strings, and brushed snares behind Waits' piano. He doesn't discard his Beat Generation influences, though. Check the fingerpopping swinging medley of his "Jack & Neal," with Al Jolson's "California, Here I Come" as a travel guide to a gone-daddy-gone road trip. The ghost traces of "Tom Traubert's Blues (Four Sheets to the Wind in Copenhagen)" are heard in a borrowed melody from a saloon waltz with a cupful of bittersweet nostalgia in the lovely "A Sight for Sore Eyes." The lengthy "Potters Field" checks the harmonic charts of Richard Rodgers' theme for Slaughter on Tenth Avenue and Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue" (with Gene Cipriano's clarinet) before digging deep into sparse, noirish, blues-jazz. Its lyric is as dark and dramatic as "Small Change (Got Rained on with His Own 38)," creating a narrative worthy of a Sam Fuller film. "Burma Shave" is a solo piano and vocal paean to the memories of drives Waits took with his father through life's seedy side. While the funky blues-cum-rhumba in "Barber Shop" adds swagger and pop to Waits' post-beat lyricism, the closing title track returns to the ballad to offer a bittersweet meditation on the perspective of "home": What it represents in the heart as opposed to what it actually is -- all from a guy living at the Tropicana Motor Hotel. Foreign Affairs is one of the most unjustifiably overlooked titles in Waits' catalog. It holds its appeal -- and sounds less dated -- than many of his more popular entries.