Review Summary: On his fourth album, Tom Waits is completely in control. Small Change epitomizes his drunken persona and contains arguably his best song writing of the '70s.
Several Waits albums stand out for different reasons: Rain Dogs as his best, Bone Machine as his darkest, Alice as his most beautiful. Small Change? His most whisky-soaked album. The all-important subject is drinking, and more or less every song revolves around the subject. The Piano Has Been Drinking (Not Me) is a prime example, and as entertaining as the title suggests. Tom Waits’ performance is fantastic on this song; he acts as much as he sings. He actually sounds drunk. “Bad Liver and a Broken Heart” is similar, although the mood is more melancholy. The lyrics are humorous as well though, and the song contains oft-quoted line: “I don’t have a drinking problem except when I can’t get a drink”.
On the musical side of things, you can expect a lot of class A ballads, backed by a mournful piano, jazz trio and some string arrangements. Occasionally Tom Waits piano takes a step back, and lets his trio do the work. Generally, these songs are more upbeat, providing a nice contrast The most significant is “Step Right Up”, a hilarious parody of sales pitches. It is driven by the same upright bass riff, some drums and nothing else. It’s also a bona fide Tom Waits classic.
More than a few people probably know the albums opener "Tom Traubert's Blues (Four Sheets To The Wind In Copenhagen)" without realizing it. The title probably isn’t instantly recognizable for most people, but the refrain (“Waltzing Mathilda, go waltzing Mathilda with me”) definitely is. This can be attributed to Mr. Rod Stewart, who has more than once provided us with inferior versions of Tom Waits classics, and thus turned them into hits. His version isn’t bad, really, but Tom Waits’ heart-breaking rendition is better by a mind-boggling distance. His voice is definitely one of the albums strongest points. It’s rougher than on his first few albums, and adds enormous personality to the gloomy compositions. He sounds “wasted and wounded” as the first line on “Tom Traubert’s Blues” says.
It’s easy to argue for Small Change as Tom Waits’ best Asylum record. Several of those albums seem to be held back by a lack of ideas. He seems to be stuck in a routine on most of the albums (it’s also his most prolific period), but not on Small Change. His drunken persona is never stronger than on Small Change, the songs are top notch, and Tom Waits is at his most humorous (aside from Nighthawks at the Diner, possibly). On Small Change, he has a perfect grasp of his style and succeeds in creating a magnificent piece of work that epitomizes his drunken, lowlife persona.