After a solid start to his career, Tom Waits went through a shaky phase in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when he’d seemingly lost direction. Foreign Affairs is a scattershot album; ranging from a Bette Midler duet to a lengthy orchestrated epic, none of which are particularly memorable, and some of which are unusually gimmicky. It was intended to capture the feel of a film noir, and does so successfully, but it’s a second tier batch of songs.
It’s symptomatic that the most memorable song, ‘A Sight For Sore Eyes’, is a straightforward Waits schtick that’s mostly notable for its use of the word palookas. The lengthy ‘Potter’s Field’ is interesting, with its sweeping orchestration, but neither it nor the atmospheric ‘Burma Shave’ feature memorable tunes. The Midler duet, ‘I Never Talk To Strangers’ is a strange deviation for the reliably hip Waits, but it’s arguably the most accomplished piece here, and it’s fun to hear Midler’s mannerisms contrasted with Waits’ growl. Throwaways like ‘Barber Shop’ and the instrumental ‘Cinny’s Waltz’ make Foreign Affairs feel like a clearing house for Waits’ weaker material.
Foreign Affairs is an unusually weak record for a talented artist in their prime years. It’s interesting to hear Waits trying different ideas out, but it’s ultimately unfulfilling.