Randy Newman will be 65 years old in November. On his first album of new material since 1999â€™s Bad Love, he emphatically demonstrates that he has not lost one bit of his rather unique gift for wrapping devastating social commentary inside of bright and sunny melodies. He remains an equal-opportunity offender, and we are all the better for it.
There is a short list of great modern day American pop songwriters, and Newmanâ€™s name is near the top of that list, which includes masters like Jimmy Webb, and Burt Bacharach. Unlike many of his peers though, his songs are, for the most part, character driven, and thatâ€™s the way he likes it. â€œMy favorite (of my own) songs are ones with characters, a cast, a narrator,â€ says Newman.
Not every song on Harps And Angels is new. In 2007, Newman released the digital single â€œA Few Words In Defense of Our Countryâ€ (download), and Rolling Stone called it the number two song of the year, â€œright behind Jay-Z, and ahead of Rihanna,â€ Newman says sardonically. Typically, the astringent lyrical commentary on the state of the nation is wrapped within a lovely country waltz. The august New York Times caught wind of the song and offered Newman space on its op-ed page to print the lyrics, though they felt the need to censor one of the verses, which I will proudly include for you here:
â€œYou know it pisses me off a little
That this Supreme Court is gonna outlive me
A couple of young Italian fellas and a brother on the Court now too
But I defy you, anywhere in the world
To find me two Italians as tight-ass as the two Italians we got
And as for the brother
Well, Plutoâ€™s not a planet anymore either.â€
â€œFeels Like Homeâ€ (download) is simply the best song about love and commitment that you are likely to hear this year, although this song too has some prior history. It was instantly familiar to me when I heard it recently, and Jeff Giles reminded me that it had been included on the 1995 release of the concept cast album of Newmanâ€™s Faust and had been released as a single at that time as well. â€œFeels Like Homeâ€ is the reverse side of the coin to Newmanâ€™s classic ballad of depression, â€œI Think Itâ€™s Going To Rain Today,â€ from his 1968 album, Randy Newman. Where the earlier song despaired:
â€œBroken windows and empty hallways
A pale dead moon in the sky streaked with gray
Human kindness is overflowing
And I think it’s going to rain todayâ€
â€œFeels Like Homeâ€ finds the songwriter no longer afraid:
â€œA window breaks
Down a long dark street
And a siren wails in the night
Cause I have you here with me
And I can almost see
Through the dark thereâ€™s a lightâ€
â€œPeople are going to like â€˜Feels Like Home.â€™ Itâ€™s going to be the most successful song on the album probably, because thatâ€™s the nature of the world, even though I mostly choose a different kind of song to write, other than straight ballads. Thatâ€™s what people like me doing best – songs like â€˜Feels Like Homeâ€™ or â€˜Marieâ€™ (from Good Old Boys),â€ Newman commented.
Elsewhere on this magnificent effort, Newman creates his own Threepenny Opera, channeling Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill on the ambitious and mordantly humorous â€œA Piece of the Pie,â€ which includes a rather unlikely tribute to Jackson Browne. â€œKorean Parents,â€ which addresses the failures of the American education system, and employs every known cliche about overachieving Korean students, is bound to offend nearly everybody, and Newman contemplates his own mortality to a New Orleans-style jazz shuffle on the albumâ€™s title track.
If only we could hear from Randy Newman more often, the level of discourse in this country might even improve a little bit. But if itâ€™s time that this elegant and acerbic songwriter needs to craft an album of gems like Harps and Angels, then he should take all the time that the needs. Until that next album, this one will occupy a favored place on my playlist.