Originally published in Paste #46, we're re-running this profile today as part of our Oscar Takeover and in honor of Newman's 18th and 19th Academy Award nominations (both for Best Original Song, for his work on Disney's The Princess and the Frog).
Randy Newman’s sardonic first album covered father/son dynamics, childhood obesity and pork-barrel politics, and in less than four minutes told the story of a young couple from marriage to death. The record’s trenchant humor and chamber-pop melodies created a startling friction, establishing the signature sound of a precocious curly-headed slurry-voiced satirist who would go on to become one of America’s most important songwriters.
That was 40 years ago. Since then, Newman has covered cops and robbers, sex and love, Freud and Einstein, and that timeless nationalist trio: racism, colonialism and patriotism. On the side, he’s scored The Natural, Toy Story and a trillion other movies, finding much more success in Hollywood pictures than he ever did with his own albums—which may explain why he’s released so few in recent years. He put out six original studio albums between 1968 and 1979, then only three more between ’80 and 2007. His new disc, Harps and Angels, is his first collection of new songs in almost a decade. The album includes an ode to senior moments (“Potholes”), a sequel to the realpolitik farce “Political Science” (“A Few Words in Defense of our Country”) and a sly narrative about a near-death experience (the title track).
“I think it’s about the best I can do at this point,” says Newman, who will turn 65 in November. “And the best I can do at this point, I think, is the best I’ve done.” In other words, he thinks Harps and Angels is better than the majestic Southern song cycle Good Old Boys, better than the rangy Sail Away, better than that classic 1968 debut. He describes the new album and its predecessor, 1999’s Bad Love, as “age-appropriate” records, some of which he couldn’t have written as a younger man. He’s not exactly obsessed with mortality these days, but it does cross his mind. “I try to look for an upside to being older,” he says, “which I can’t really find. … I’ve been thinking about what I want to do with the time I have left. What I should be doing besides watching soccer and the golf tournament. I haven’t done much about it.”
A master of self-deprecation, Newman often downplays the influence his songwriting has had. In a radio interview, he once quipped that his songs about race had wiped out racism—accentuating the fact that they’d done anything but. “I always knew since I was 20 that music’s not gonna change the world,” he says. “They thought so in the ’60s, and some things did change. But it’s mainly fashion that it changes. It’s not any deep ideological thing.”
And yet, even though the records don’t sell or change anybody’s mind, Newman keeps making them. “It’s what I do best,” he says. “It’s not the easiest thing for me, but I just feel that I should keep making albums ’cause I’m still good at it. And I still think I could get better. I think I’m better than I was. And I think I could get better with the next one—and that’s reason enough.”
To read Randy Newman's thoughts on the Bush administration, the best song he's ever written and whether or not he's ever had a near-death experience, click here.