The great American songwriter tackles the Bush years.
Tue Jul 29 2008
Photograph: Pamela Springsteen
The supposed paradox of Randy Newman is that he writes undemanding treacle as a Hollywood film scorer and sardonic pop in his more cherished, if less lucrative, role as a cultish singer-songwriter. This is true to an extent. It would take an unusual soul to confuse, say, Toy Story’s “You’ve Got a Friend in Me” with 1970’s “Suzanne,” which Newman narrates from the perspective of a sexual predator. No matter what you may recall, Buzz Lightyear did not croon, “I’m gonna wait in the shadows for you” to Mr. Potato Head.
Yet to disregard the L.A. singer’s less challenging material is to miss the full picture. Newman is a consummate songwriter, willing to commit to a particular work irrespective of its consequences. While such obligation to a song has led him to write through the eyes of a rogue’s gallery—bigots, deviants, slave traders—it has also resulted in unabashed balladry lacking a smidgen of his trademark wit. As a consequence, his albums possess a range of styles and emotions that eludes most artists. Newman’s new record, Harps and Angels, features gushy love songs, jokey novelty tunes, an autobiographical kvetching blues and his late-career specialty, the limousine liberal’s political lament. It’s an outstanding album that, while not adhering to an overarching concept, grapples with the loss of the American Dream in unexpected and often broadly funny ways. It’s catchy, too.
Newman is 64, which in songwriter years generally equals deceased. Though his muse should have been burning in hell decades ago, it miraculously perseveres, albeit with the speed of an old lady boarding a bus. Harps and Angels is his first collection of new, nonsoundtrack material since 1999. The album was produced by Mitchell Froom and former Warner Bros.president Lenny Waronker—the musician’s early champion, who had not produced for him since 1983. Whereas some of Newman’s post-’70s work suffers from the tinny production that can plague aging artists attempting to curry favor with the young, Harps and Angels sounds nice and old—like something a young person would record.
Newman remains wedded to his usual idioms: New Orleans piano, lush Hollywood orchestrations and increasingly strained vocals reminiscent of a cartoon bluesman. The album’s ballads, “Losing You” and “Feels Like Home” (the latter rescued from his 1995 musical, Faust), are unflinchingly traditional, belated submissions to the Great American Songbook. Its funniest number, “Korean Parents,” is a terrifically detailed novelty bit suggesting that complacent Americans farm out their child-raising responsibilities to the whip-cracking title characters, while the record’s most satisfying song, “Only a Girl,” satirizes a May-December relationship.
Harps and Angels is the first Randy Newman album of the Bush era, and he seizes a humorist’s license to address the nation’s catastrophic state. As on most of his latter-day work, he doesn’t sing much from a villain’s point of view—does anybody really want to hear Dick Cheney narrate a pop song?—instead spending most of the record without a mask. The issue that’s dear to Newman, bard of Bel Air, is class disparity. “The rich are getting richer, I should know,” he roars on “A Piece of the Pie,” a Broadway-style blowout. “While we’re going up you’re going down / And no one gives a shit but Jackson Browne.”
If that is the disc’s showstopper, its nucleus is “A Few Words in Defense of Our Country,” the lyrics of which Newman premiered last year on The New York Times’ op-ed page. As his musical backdrop shuffles from amiable country to a mocking “Columbia, the Gem of the Ocean,” the singer rummages through history in search of leaders worse than our current cabal and gripes about the Supreme Court. “I defy you, anywhere in the world,” he posits, “to find me two Italians as tight-ass as the two Italians we got.” As his punch line lingers in the air, Newman switches gears: “The end of an empire is messy at best / And this empire is ending / Like all the rest / Like the Spanish Armada adrift on the sea / We’re adrift in the land of the brave / And the home of the free.”
It’s difficult to imagine any other musician so nimbly addressing contemporary America, the crumbling empire, without hiding behind the abstraction that plagues so many songwriters. Forty years after his debut LP, Newman remains in a class of his own. Nellie McKay has his melodic cleverness; Nashville singer Todd Snider captures his perspective and flow; Eminem and the Streets do wonders with bent narrators. As for the whole shebang? Forget it—now as before, no one can touch him.
Harps and Angels comes out on Nonesuch Tue 5. Randy Newman plays Carnegie Hall Sept 19.