The world (still) isn't fair, but the gimlet-eyed songwriter keeps singing about it
Many albums I receive in the mail include an artist bio that describes something other than the album I’m listening to. Emo bands cite Van Morrison influences. Metal ensembles insist their album isn’t like all the rest; that it features more in the way of inventive melody. And singer/songwriters transcend the clichés of their chosen genre—often alt.country—only to sing more songs about girls who haunt their memories as they stare down the barroom floor or wait on a train that never comes. I’m not calling these people liars. They’re just not as creative as they’d like to think. Or maybe they’re just too subtle for my taste.
But when Randy Newman decides to finally release the pause button on
his songwriting career (taking a break from his lucrative
Grammy-winning film scoring career), I know I’ll find myself intrigued.
Because Newman believes his songs should be about something. He likes
concepts and characters. He doesn’t mind making people uncomfortable.
And if he was willing as a young, struggling songwriter to alienate his
audience, you can be sure that, as he gets closer to that grand
retirement, he isn’t likely to hold his tongue just to uphold some
sense of decorum.
In context with other songwriters and their socially gracious
platitudes, Newman can seem a tad mean. But it’s one of his greatest
strengths. He deals with human nature. For every fine songwriter who
dreams of a world holding hands like one magical Vaseline Intensive
Care commercial, Newman uncovers the paradoxes, ironies and difficult
decisions that “good” people face when their comfort zones are in
jeopardy. Love is absolute but conditional.
On Harps and Angels, even Newman is kicked out of his comfort zone.
“A Few Words in Defense of Our Country” began as a concert favorite and
a YouTube offering where Newman’s frustration with the country’s
right-wing shift caused him to bleed a little. “But I defy you,
anywhere in the world / To find me two Italians as tightass as the two
Italians we got,” he sings of Supreme Court Justices Antonin Scalia and
Samuel Alito. The verse was cut from the New York Times’ lyric reprint
that ran as an Op-Ed piece—and here Newman recites it with all the
contempt he can muster.
You don’t get Newman like this very often. His conscience is
strong, but long ago it accepted mankind’s limits, which is where he
finds his best material. “Only a Girl” revisits his obsession with the
battle of the sexes that turned up frequently on his last studio album,
1999’s Bad Love, where love often played like a corporate-boardroom
move. (“Why would someone beautiful as she / Love someone old like me /
Maybe it’s the money... / God damn it.”)
“Korean Parents” makes a case that the ever-escalating permissive
parenting of the past few generations could benefit from the tighter,
performance-driven expectations of the Korean immigrants who don’t
coddle their young. “So sick of hearing about the greatest generation /
That generation could be you / So let’s see what you can do / Korean
parents and you.” Yet, of course, Newman eventually throws one right
down the plate. “Feels Like Home” is the song anyone could cover,
almost sentimental as the album’s closer, a lonely old man glad to have
another person’s affection.
So many laugh-out-loud moments resonate beyond the punchline, and
each new spin of the album reveals another. “A Piece of the Pie” looks
at the economic disparity that puts Newman in the uncomfortable spot of
the “have-mores” and pins our hopes on Jackson Browne(!). “Potholes”
reflects on aging and the possibility that losing your memories is as
useful as keeping them. Of course, loved ones remember the things about
you that you wish they’d forget.
Harps and Angels is another fine Randy Newman album, minimally
produced by Mitchell Froom and Lenny Waronker; Newman arranges and
orchestrates as he sees fit with an emphasis on New Orleans-style piano
fills, and with no attempts at rap, hard rock or girlpop. Not that that
would’ve been bad. It’s just not here.