Last month I wrote about Van Morrison’s Back on Top as the perfect October album. It occurs to me that Small Change by Tom Waits may be the perfect November album–at least for the cold and gray part of November, between the falling of the last autumn leaf and the first winter snowflake.
Waits has had a couple of careers–his latter-day one as a Broadway and film composer and actor, and his earlier one recording succeeding chapters in the biography of a skid-row lowlife. From 1976, Small Change is representative of the latter period. Waits plays piano and growls out lyrics that are alternately funny, poignant, and bizarre, backed mostly by a jazz trio. The net effect is like sitting on a barstool very late at night next to a sloppy yet charismatic drunk, after you’ve had about one too many yourself.
Despite flashes of humor (the hilarious “Step Right Up,” in which Waits does a sales pitch for something that will turn a sandwich into a banquet and double on sax, or “Pasties and a G-String,” in which you and Waits are on your barstools at a strip club, or “The Piano Has Been Drinking”), Small Change is mostly bleak: for example, “Tom Traubert’s Blues” and “Bad Liver and a Broken Heart” are tales of a man who’s on the downhill slide for damn good reasons. So Small Change really is perfect for those November days just after the colors of fall have stolen away, when they’re still close enough to remember but far enough away to be irretrievably lost; when it’s cold enough to make you want a shot of something strong to chase away the chill. Not that Small Change is going to warm you up any–but you’ll understand why you’re cold.