Randy Newman’s new album, Harps and Angels, is in stores today.
What is the deal with joke rock? Does anyone actually listen to Randy Newman? At home on a stereo?
These are two questions with which I have wrestled over the past few years, as respected peers, with increasing persistence, lobby hard for Newman’s spare, early solo albums and demand that he be given a break for the cartoon soundtracks and joke songs you hear sometimes at weddings.
You know Randy: “Short people got / No reason to live!” and “I Love L.A.!”
He makes music for Pixar films that then get radio play and later, Oscars.
And there’s a reason he rules the cartoon soundtrack market: He’s a master wordsmith, and can make the simplest thoughts, which would turn to saccharine trash in anyone else’s hands, into undeniable heart melters.
He won an Academy Award for “If I Didn’t Have You,” from “Monsters, Inc.,” and damned if he didn’t deserve it. I’ll admit it: That movie was cute and that song, even cuter.
But in fact Randy Newman has, over the years, spoken in so many voices that it can be hard to tell when he’s being genuine, or whether such valuations are even at play.
His narrative voice might be that of a narcissist, a bigot, or a slave trader, or it could just be old Randy, talking about life’s little foibles. He’s an unreliable troubadour and an extremely effective emotional manipulator. He can drive you crazy.
Back in the ‘70s, after a decade writing songs for others, Newman began releasing solo albums of his own material that showed a tremendously graceful merging of the Great American Songbook with the dominant singer-songwriter mode of contemporaries like James Taylor and Paul Simon.
Newman betrays in interviews that he’d love nothing more than to be spoken of in the same breath as those other two, but his work sets him apart both by being, on the whole, of higher quality musically and lyrically, and by never being as relentlessly pop oriented.
His most popular songs (also his best), like “Sail Away,” “Political Science,” “God’s Song,” “Rednecks,” “Short People” “I Love L.A.,” and “It’s Money That Matters” all exist on a continuum between silly and sublime, and all shoot pop-rock through with orchestral flourishes, bombastic big band sounds, or similar accoutrements.
Newman’s humor, his ability to effortlessly wield a simple language into complex set pieces puts him in closer communion with Gershwin, Porter, and most of all Sondheim. Yet whatever musical theater touches mark Newman’s music (orchestral-accented narrative tunes with colorful characterization and casual conversation built-in), there are always also notes of country, rock, and jazz stylistics, and though he’s dabbled in musical theater, each three-minute melodrama usually stands alone.
So he’s not quite a singer-songwriter, nor a Broadway composer. He shares most with the likes of Tom Waits, Leon Redbone, and even Warren Zevon, those often-funny-boned narrativists with idiosyncratic vocal styles and storytelling in their bones. (Harry Nilsson is another, more complicated analogue—the two famously collaborated on Nilsson Sings Newman).
His latest album, Harps and Angels, out today, shows Newman still embodying all the disparate and possibly contradictory elements that can make him so tough to pin down. He’s the quick-witted hero of elitists, the proletarian pundit of classic rockists, the fuzzy songsmith of cheese-lovers, even the silver-tongued, golden-eared craftsman of pop-ists. And through it all he’s prone to fits of clownish, self-satisfied riffs on culture that leave you smiling but unfulfilled. This is Newman’s greatest asset and his greatest shame. At his worst, he’s a mediocre stand-up comic who’s shtick is to sing the jokes. Reversing it is harder: Pop is a tough place for joke making.
Born in Los Angeles, Newman spent part of his youth in New Orleans, and that city’s history of music and miscegenation has seeped into his tunes (and his drawl) through the years, so that blues, jazz, standards, and even rock intertwine naturally, inevitably. When Hurricane Katrina hit, it was Newman’s caustic 1974 disaster ballad “Louisiana 1927” that Aaron Neville updated, and that seemed for many people to offer some healing through song in the face of awful tragedy. Then early last year Newman released a darkly satirical tune titled “A Few Words in Defense of Our Country,” which also appeared as a New York Times Op-Ed piece.
Backed by a gentle waltz, Newman speaks of America as a land “Whose people aren’t bad nor are they mean / Now the leaders we have / While they’re the worst that we’ve had / Are hardly the worst this poor world has seen / Let’s turn history’s pages, shall we?” He goes on to cheekily document the most abominable scoundrels to ever rule, Newman ends with the bleak farewell to the American empire: “Goodbye. Goodbye. Goodbye.”
With those two nuggets, Newman seemed poised for a release to rival his last proper album, 1999’s “Bad Love,” which wowed critics as an incisive and mordant (and less silly) compendium of what always made Newman so great.
The opener and title track returns again to New Orleans with a shimmering Dixieland sound, to find a dying man spared by God, apologetic for the clerical error and gently suggesting a change in ways.
Follow-up “Losing You” switches gears with a brutal lament for a tragically lost son. Navigating the space between Far Side-worthy irony and heart-on-sleeve credulity is one of Newman’s specialties, but when the third track, “Laugh and Be Happy,” a compendium of fun suggestions for embattled immigrants, swings back again to the ridiculous, that old uncertainty about who Newman is supposed to be returns, and the limitations of humor feel palpable.
“Korean Parents” is another song about immigrants, this time talking about the pressures of immigrant social aspirations. Oddly, the music contains the cheap, old Hollywood style ersatz-Asian music Newman himself made fun of nearly 40 years ago in “Yellow Man.” In a live version he once called such Orientalism a “pinhead’s view of China.” The turnaround feels awkward and confusing, a further erosion of the solidity of Newman’s creative virtue and his brightness.
Newman turns 65 this year, but for the most part he avoids trading on nostalgia (he’s at least “so tired of hearing about the greatest generation,” which bodes well). The best tracks on the album are those where co-producer and sideman Mitchell Froom plays with form, bringing in dissonance, unexpected genre elements, and fresh sounds. He worked with Newman on 2003’s “Songbook, Vol. 1,” a collection of reworked older tunes, and he knows how to make overly familiar orchestral sweeps into shiny, fairly contemporary-sounding delights.
“A Piece of the Pie” is the most exciting and fresh tune here, with a rollicking Kurt Weill musical backing as Newman muses on John Mellencamp’s uber-patriotic GM ads as well as Jackson Browne’s strident politicking (a bit of a pot and kettle moment), only to be interrupted by squabbling Belgians, playing up the theme of divisiveness and the fight to own patriotism.
It’s high concept, it’s fun, it’s not too silly, and it sounds fantastic, Newman’s voice complemented perfectly by the skronking horns and falling-apart strings of the music hall band.
Closer “Feels Like Home,” a love song written in the mid-90’s and already covered by many, is here remade into sweet gold, but where “A Piece of the Pie” is adventurous, the last song feels overly safe. We’re back finally in fuzz country.
Harps and Angels is Newman’s first slice of new music in nine years (a slim slice at a cool 35 minutes) and while it has moments of terrible sadness and mirth, it is hindered at times by those classic aw-shucks, ain’t-life-ridiculous anthems. These are Newman’s bread and butter, of course, and are sure to delight his fans. Yet such light pleasures are unlikely to bring many new ears into the fold. Newman knows what he’s best at and certainly knows how to give people what they want, but it would be easier to believe the heavy mythology around him if he’d take opportunities like this one to take chances in eschewing formula and embracing his truly formidable talents.