I’ve waited a long time to review something by Randy Newman, who I believe to be just a notch below Bob Dylan in the pantheon of great American songwriters of the past 50 years. In fact I find his music, the harmonies he uses below his melodies, to be so compelling that it’s almost impossible for me to skip over him when his songs come up on my iPod, even if I’ve heard them a thousand times. I love his wit, his irony and his intelligence, but there’s something in the music for me that defies rational analysis. And when he marries a great lyric with a poignant musical passage, like in God’s Song when he sings to his dying father “won’t be no God to comfort you/taught me not to believe that lie”, as the strings climb slowly and chromatically upwards, I feel like I’m exactly where I should be in this world. That song is almost as old as I am, but the Randman can still knock one out of the park when you least expect it. Here it’s on Losing You, the kind of straightforward ballad that he writes better than anyone on the planet. Singing that he’ll “never get over losing you”, on the third verse the beautiful strings drop out and it’s just him and his piano;
When you’re young
and there’s time
You don’t think
that you will
but you do
But I know
now I don’t have
and I’ll never
Maybe you need a certain kind of life experience to feel those words, but my eyes stung when I heard them. The sentiment looks obvious on the written page, but when he plays those chords, and strains to hit those notes, pausing between each line as if it was too painful to continue, the cliché becomes a Truth. The album would be worth having for that moment alone, but fortunately Newman has given us 30 more minutes of sheer, laid back, New Orleans pleasure to go along with it.
First off, this is probably his funniest album, and that’s saying a lot. I laughed out loud more than once on my first listen. I got the biggest kick out of his resigned “Goddamnit” at the end of Only a Girl, when he realizes for the first time that the young girl he’s with might only be in it for the money. There are nuggets like that on every song, but especially when he’s commenting on where America finds itself today. Whether he’s lamenting the deterioration of kid’s test scores in Korean Parents, or exhorting the poor immigrants who cross the border every day to Laugh and Be Happy, the irony cuts like a knife. But you’re laughing while you’re bleeding. Even when you think he’s being straight with you politically speaking, like on Piece of the Pie, the music playfully undercuts lines like “Jesus Christ it stinks here high and low!” If the album has a centerpiece it’s probably A Few Words in Defense of Our Country, which they should play for schoolchildren to round out their education. Here, Newman defends Bush by pointing out that hey, Stalin was worse. Yeah, at least we have that to fall back on. He then grapples with Clarence Thomas’ blackness by concluding “well, Pluto’s not a planet anymore either.” It all ends with another one of his heartfelt ballads, Feels Like Home,formerly performed well by Bonnie Raitt but perfected here. Hearing it, my girlfriend commented “they should play this at weddings”, and I couldn’t agree more, especially because Newman himself has said that it’s about as good a love song as he’s capable of writing.
This is Newman’s most touching, musically rich and consistent record since Good Old Boys way back in 1974; and it’s hilarious to boot. If you’re not smiling halfway through, see a doctor, because you just might be hearing harps and angels yourself.