While Waits is still nominally a piano balladeer on Small Change, but with each album his work was becoming more beer soaked. Songs like ‘I Wish I Was In New Orleans’ and ‘Tom Traubert’s Blues’ are still dominated by Waits’ piano and Louis Armstrong-like gravely voice, but overall Small Change is seedy, right down to the topless woman on the cover, with Waits exploring the dark underbelly of his bar crooner persona, with titles like ‘The Piano Has Been Drinking (Not Me)’ and ‘Bad Liver and a Broken Heart’, as well as the oft-quoted line “I only have a drinking problem/When I can’t get a drink,”; Small Change encapsulates Waits’ hard-drinking, broken-hearted archetype more than any of his other records.
Small Change opens with the gorgeous ‘Tom Traubert’s Blues’, with its “Waltzing Matilda” chorus, and elliptical lyrics (“You can ask any sailor and the keys from the jailer/And the old men in wheelchairs know”). Waits almost raps an advertising jingle over drums and bass in ‘Step Right Up’: “3 for a dollar/We got a year end clearance”, while on the title track Waits is only accompanied by Lew Tabackin’s saxophone. These are the exceptions rather than the rule, and for fans of Waits’ piano balladry there’s still plenty of conventional material; the melancholic ‘Invitation To The Blues’, and the downtrodden suitor of ‘I Can’t Wait To Get Off Work’.
This is arguably the last record of Waits’ early, piano-based phase – his next few albums would try to diversify with varying amounts of success, before Waits completely reinvented himself with 1983’s Swordfishtrombones.