“Randy Newman Finds Something New Under the Sun,” proclaimed the back cover of his 1968 debut, and even if that wasn’t entirely true — his music, after all, has always looked fondly back at forebears such as Stephen Foster and Scott Joplin — it nonetheless served to put discerning music lovers on notice: here was a major new songwriting talent.

The nephew of not one but several composers, Newman took his proud heritage and spun it backwards and sideways. If pop music was a four-year-old’s birthday party, he’d be a ferocious clown, hired without a background check, who showed up drunk and told various off-color jokes before twisting balloons into shapes slightly resembling cuddly animals, yet also vaguely threatening and profane. He was, in other words, not to be trusted, and he reveled in it. Though prodigiously talented musically, his true gift would prove to be an uncanny knack for not only inhabiting the persons of some of the most unsavory characters in all of modern popular music, but imbuing them with honest humanity — of somehow enabling the listener to understand. In the hands of a less talented songwriter, these men (for they were always men) would have been cartoon villains; in fact, in Newman’s less inspired moments, they were. Yet more often than not, he could speak from the viewpoint of the most reprehensible human being — a rapist, a murderer, a bigot, an all-around ne’er-do-well — and force the stirrings of empathy in the listener. When it comes to songwriters, any schmuck can handle a love song. It takes real talent to expose the seedy underbelly of human nature, and do so in such a way that heroes and villains are beside the point; in Randy Newman’s world, there are none of either.

He’s often described as a cynic hiding in the musical trappings of an idealist, and critics tend to make a fuss whenever he writes an honestly sentimental song, but to my way of thinking, Randy Newman is a more honest and less cynical songwriter than most — he trusts his audience to go along with him on a journey, after all, between the highs and the lows of human nature; and to understand that, though each protagonist is a character, he also functions as a mirror. Even more impressive, Newman mostly does it in less than three minutes.

Randy Newman (1968)

In time, he would come to embrace the limitations of his froggish voice, not to mention the beautiful squareness of his true musical language, but here, Newman would have to settle for simply crafting what is commonly known as an “audacious debut.” The production sounds a little dated now, leaning as heavily as it does on often-intrusive orchestral instrumentation, but given the sheer number of classics in his catalog, it’s impressive how many of them came from his first effort. “Love Story” (download), to give just one example, is a pungent blend of giddy naivete and biting wit. “I like your mother, I like your brother, I like you, and you like me too,” he sings, before launching into his perfect vision of their happy future together:

We’ll have a kid
Or maybe we’ll rent one
He’s got to be straight
We don’t want a bent one
He’ll drink his baby brew
From a big brass cup
Someday he may be president
If things loosen up

On “I Think He’s Hiding” (download), Newman makes the first entry in a career-long list of songs about religion. Sometimes gently quizzical, sometimes positively scathing, his “God songs” are among his finest; here, he pokes fun at the Second Coming, daring the Messiah to show His face:

Come on, Big Boy
Come and save us
Come and look at what we’ve done
With what you gave us
Now I’ve heard it said
That our Big Boy’s dead
But I think He’s hiding
I think He’s hiding
I think He’s hiding

12 Songs (1970)

In the late ’60s and early ’70s, two years was an absolute eternity in the music world — recording artists were known to release multiple albums in a year — so a listener could have been forgiven for expecting Newman’s long-gestating second effort to surpass the debut in terms of intricacy and scope. What they got, however, was 12 Songs, a modest affair that is the closest Newman has ever come to recording a back-porch album. Reflective of its unassuming title, the album has no unifying theme, although it contains several flashes of where Newman would be heading in the future. Most of his satirical social commentary is fairly even-handed if one looks closely enough, but “Old Kentucky Home” (download) is positively scathing in its dismissal of backwoods yokels:

Sister Sue, she’s short and stout
She didn’t grow up – she grew out
Mama says she’s plain but she’s just bein’ kind
Papa thinks she’s pretty but he’s almost blind
Don’t let her out much ‘cept at night
But I don’t care ’cause I’m all right

Much more sympathetic is “Yellow Man” (download), first in a long series of Randy Newman songs dealing with the absurdity of racism. Here, as in many of his other songs, he wears the skin of an ignoramus, and a listener who took the lyrics at face value would come away thinking Newman is clearly an unenlightened bigot. To Newman, though, the senseless views of racists are so foolish that there’s no harm in turning them inside out and trying them on for size:

Eatin’ rice all day
While the children play
You see he believes
In the family
Just like you and me

Oh, yellow man, oh, yellow man
We understand, you know we understand
He keeps his money tight in his hand
With his yellow woman he’s a yellow man

With “Mama Told Me Not to Come” (download), of course, Newman had a big hit, even if it was performed by Three Dog Night. He was becoming well-known as a songwriter’s songwriter.

Sail Away (1972)

If Randy Newman was overproduced and 12 Songs was startlingly spare, then Sail Away was the perfect blend of the two. Here, for the first time, Newman’s masterful command of New Orleans R&B and classic pop are fully combined with his literate lyrical wit. Though it’s the jokey “Political Science” that everybody’s heard, the album is front-to-back full of wonderful, full-bodied songs, populated with deeply flawed characters, moving in their humanity. Newman has described the album’s title track (download) as an ad jingle for slavers on the African shore, and it’s difficult to imagine a more beautiful arrangement set to such scathingly sarcastic lyrics:

In America you’ll get food to eat
Won’t have to run through the jungle
And scuff up your feet
You’ll just sing about Jesus and drink wine all day
It’s great to be an American

The album is without a false moment — Newman simply lines up twelve targets and mows them all down. In “Lonely at the Top,” written for Frank Sinatra, the protagonist whines about how famous he is (predictably, Sinatra didn’t get the joke and rejected the song); on “Burn On” (download), Newman ridicules Cleveland’s Cuyahoga River, so polluted it had recently caught fire (”Cleveland, city of light, city of magic”); “Memo to My Son” is perhaps the most clear-eyed song about parenting and paternal expectations ever written; and, with “God’s Song (That’s Why I Love Mankind),” Newman revisits the Almighty, still every bit as mean-spirited as he was on Randy Newman:

I burn down your cities — how blind you must be
I take from you your children and you say how blessed are we
You all must be crazy to put your faith in me
That’s why I love mankind
You really need me
That’s why I love mankind

And then there’s “You Can Leave Your Hat On” (download), the sleazy, ineffective come-ons of a fumbling geek. In Newman’s hands, it was clearly a joke, but Joe Cocker took the whole thing at face value — and made it a hit, thus proving that Newman’s humor, though devastating, was so subtle that it could be completely missed. This was a lesson Newman would learn fully in due time.

Fans who listened to Newman’s first two albums and enjoyed his irreverence and caustic humor may have been surprised, and a little disturbed, to discover that his songwriting can also display a wide cruel streak. Most of the time, his targets are so deserving of the treatment they get that the listener follows along willingly, even eagerly, but on a handful of occasions, he discovers he’s gone too far. In an interview some years back, Newman talked about not being able to perform this album’s “Old Man” in a live setting, because the audience turns on him. True to form, Newman sounded bewildered and a little hurt, even talking about a song containing these lines:

Won’t be no God to comfort you
You taught me not to believe that lie
You don’t need anybody
Nobody needs you
Don’t cry, old man, don’t cry
Everybody dies

Good Old Boys (1974)

It’s easy to imagine an artist peaking after Sail Away, particularly one only on his third album — either because they’d shot their artistic load, or because the expectations were too much to live up to. Randy Newman came back with Good Old Boys, a Southern song cycle that, if it doesn’t equal its predecessor, comes awfully close. Given the amount of furor he’d stir up with a comparatively innocuous set of lyrics just a few years later, it’s difficult to imagine why Newman didn’t make more enemies with the album’s leadoff track, “Rednecks” (download).

Most songs about racial injustice are completely earnest, often overly so; most of them also focus squarely on the evils of the South. Newman, though, caught an episode of The Dick Cavett Show featuring Lester Maddox, the loudmouth racist governor of Georgia, and was struck by the hostility of the host and the audience. Understanding that the North was just as guilty of racism, and that its demonization of the Lester Maddoxes of the South was tinged with self-righteous hypocrisy, he imagined how the other side would feel. Most people focused on the song’s catchy refrain — “We’re rednecks, rednecks/We don’t know our ass from a hole in the ground/And we’re keeping the niggers down” — but missed the part where Newman reminds us that there’s more than enough blame to go around:

Now your northern nigger’s a Negro
You see he’s got his dignity
Down here we’re too ignorant to realize
That the North has set the nigger free
Yes he’s free to be put in a cage
In Harlem in New York City
And he’s free to be put in a cage in the South Side of Chicago
And the West Side
And he’s free to be put in a cage in Hough in Cleveland
And he’s free to be put in a cage in East St. Louis
And he’s free to be put in a cage in Fillmore in San Francisco
And he’s free to be put in a cage in Roxbury in Boston
They’re gatherin’ ‘em up from miles around
Keepin’ the niggers down

What many failed to realize then — and still do today — is that Good Old Boys is a love letter, thinly disguised as a kick in the crotch. The album’s protagonist, a hard-drinking millworker named Johnny Cutler, is an ignorant, abusive failure of a man. But he’s a father, and a husband, and he loves his family as deeply (and clumsily) as he loves his land. Pop music is less than conducive to full-bodied, empathic portraits of human nature, especially its darker spots; this is a large part of why pop listeners aren’t accustomed to listening for shading or subtext. It’s easy just to pick up on his casual use of a word like “cracker,” in “Louisiana 1927″ (download), or to laugh at his descriptions of freaks, whores, and toothless old paperboys in “A Wedding in Cherokee County,” and a person can easily enjoy Good Old Boys without really understanding it. To hear it that way, though, is to miss the point, and miss the album’s real greatness. “Marie” (download), the album’s emotional centerpiece, is one of the most starkly beautiful love songs ever written:

You looked like a princess the night we met
With your hair piled up high
I will never forget
I’m drunk right now baby
But I’ve got to be
Or I never could tell you
What you meant to me

Little Criminals (1977)

Randy Newman always said he wanted to be a big pop star; he didn’t try to write quirky songs, it just happened. Little Criminals can be seen as the first in a series of efforts to polish his sound and move it squarely into the mainstream. Recorded with some of the most famous members of LA’s late ’70s Mellow Mafia (Don Henley, Glenn Frey, so on and so forth), the album sounds — musically, anyway — like an out-of-the-park chart smash for the period. The drums and guitars are shiny and airless, the vocals are smooth and perfect, and Newman had assembled a solid batch of his catchiest material. He led off with what he thought was clearly a song about prejudice, and how arbitrary and foolish it is:

They got little hands
Little eyes
They walk around
Tellin’ great big lies
They got little noses
And tiny little teeth
They wear platform shoes
On their nasty little feet
Well, I don’t want no short people
Don’t want no short people
Don’t want no short people ’round here

A large group of short people didn’t get the joke (it went — wait for it — over their heads), and kicked up such a fuss that the song was eventually banned in the state of Maryland. All of this noise was great for sales, of course; “Short People” became Newman’s highest-charting single, and Criminals his best-selling album. It’s sort of a shame, because as catchy as these songs are, they aren’t Newman’s best — they aren’t bad by any stretch, but in comparison to Sail Away and Good Old Boys, they’re sort of lightweight, and the slick production doesn’t do them many favors. Still, the album’s title track (download) is vintage satire, and “Jolly Coppers on Parade” (download), though dismissed by some critics as trivial piffle, is undeniably gorgeous, and one of Newman’s finest evocations of classic American pop.

Born Again (1979)

This album is widely dismissed as a low point in Newman’s catalog, which is a little unfair. It’s understandable, being that expectations were so high after the runaway success of Little Criminals — and, on the whole, this was probably his weakest collection of songs to date — but even Randy Newman at his worst is usually better than anything else that happens to be out. Part of the problem stemmed from the fact that Newman has never been a terribly prolific writer, and the pressure of releasing an album every other year or so was diluting the quality of his material. These songs held on to the savage, biting wit from albums past, but in many instances, they were missing the empathy that had always set Newman apart. Songs like “Mr. Sheep” and “Pretty Boy” seemed to catch him going through the motions — there were high points, however. “The Story of a Rock and Roll Band” (download) is an enjoyable, if obvious, sendup of the Electric Light Orchestra, and with “Half A Man” (download), Newman tackles prejudice again — sexual rather than racial, but with similarly brilliant results. The song’s protagonist spots a “big old queen” standing on a street corner and hops out of his car to deliver a beating, only to discover that simply by talking to his intended victim, he has caught the disease:

Oh, the strangest feelings sweeping over me
Both my speech and manner have become much more refined
I said, “Oh, what is this feeling?
“What is wrong with me?”
She said, “Girl, it happens all the time
“Now you are half a man, half a man
Look, you’re walking and you’re talking
Like a fag.”
half a man, I am half a man
Holy Jesus, what a drag

Trouble in Paradise (1983)

By the time Trouble in Paradise was released in 1983, it seemed Randy Newman had grown so comfortable within the trappings of slick Los Angeles production that he’d never come out. Though critics responded more favorably to Paradise than they had to Born Again — and the songs are actually a marginal improvement — the two albums are really of a pair. Where Born Again led off with the bald-faced cynicism of “It’s Money That I Love,” here Newman begins the proceedings with three minutes of craven pandering to his adopted home (and the charts), “I Love L.A.”:

Roll down the window, put down the top
Crank up the Beach Boys, baby
Don’t let the music stop
We’re gonna ride it till we just can’t ride it no more

From the South Bay to the Valley
From the West Side to the East Side
Everybody’s very happy
‘Cause the sun is shining all the time
Looks like another perfect day

I love L.A. (We love it)
I love L.A. (We love it)

What drags Paradise down is the production. It must have sounded like a good idea at the time, but all the burping synths are just unnecessary distractions; though the arrangements are tight, and Newman’s lyrical eye is as sharp as ever, they can’t withstand the constant attack. Songs like “Christmas in Capetown,” “My Life Is Good” (download), and “Real Emotional Girl” (download) are among the finest in his catalog; they deserve to be rescued from this album.

Though the album wasn’t a flop, it wasn’t the big hit Newman and Warner Bros. had been hoping for, and since its release, he has mostly turned his back on recording studio albums. Scoring films, he’d learned, was more profitable for the amount of time it took, and earned him equally positive reviews — his theme for The Natural, in particular, became positively iconic in its identification with sports miracles. Indeed, his work for films like Parenthood (”I Love to See You Smile”) and Toy Story (”You’ve Got A Friend In Me”) was more successful than anything he’d done.

Land of Dreams (1988)

It took Newman five years to assemble a follow-up to Trouble in Paradise, and when he re-emerged with Land of Dreams, critics were surprised to discover he had a new trick up his sleeve. Where his previous songs had all been stories about characters, here, for the first time, Newman ventured into autobiography. The album leads off with “Dixie Flyer” (download), a beautiful evocation of the songwriter’s New Orleans youth:

I was born right here, November ‘43
My dad was a captain in the army
Fighting the Germans in Sicily
My poor little momma
Didn’t know a soul in L.A.
So we went down to the Union Station and made our getaway

Got on the Dixie Flyer bound for New Orleans
Across the state of Texas to the land of dreams
On the Dixie Flyer bound for New Orleans
Back to her friends and her family in the land of dreams

He continues in this vein through the lovely “New Orleans Wins the War,” which tells the story of his father’s return from World War II and the family’s subsequent Los Angeles homecoming:

Daddy said, “I’m gonna get this boy out of this place
“Bound to sap his strength
“People have fun here, and I think that they should
“But nobody from here ever come to no good
“They’re gonna pickle him in brandy and tell him he’s saved
“Then throw fireworks all ’round his grave”

And then into the cruelly hilarious “Four Eyes,” in which young Randy is dragged out of bed and driven to his first day of school:

We drove, it seemed like forever,
Further than I’d ever been away from home
Then my daddy stopped the car, and he turned to me
He said, “Son it’s time to make us proud of you,
“It’s time to do what’s right
“Gonna have to learn to work hard”
I said, “Work? What are you talking about?
“You’re not gonna leave me here, are you?”
He said “Yes I am!”
And drove off into the morning light

From here, though, Land of Dreams ventures into more traditional Newman territory — the conservative parody of “Roll with the Punches” (download), the shallow 1980s anthem “It’s Money that Matters,” the triumphantly selfish “I Want You to Hurt Like I Do.” There’s the painfully misguided “Masterman and Baby J,” which tries to send up rap braggadocio but falls wide of its mark, and even a pair of unabashedly sentimental love songs, “Falling in Love” and “Something Special.” Aside from “Masterman,” there aren’t any clunkers, but after the album’s first three songs, the rest of Land of Dreams feels somewhat cobbled together; it lacks unity. And there’s still a problem with the production — while nowhere near as slick as Born Again or Trouble in Paradise, it could still stand to be stripped of a fair amount of varnish. All in all, the album is a frustratingly middling effort from a songwriter who could have done better.

Faust (1995)

On paper, this sounded like a failsafe winner: Randy Newman, American pop composer, meets Faust. The story, about a wager between God and Satan for the soul of a callow young man, seemed made for Newman’s pen; to sweeten the deal, he assembled an army of famous friends to play Faust’s roles on the album, including Don Henley as the title character, Linda Ronstadt and Bonnie Raitt as his love interests, and — in an inspired bit of casting — James Taylor as God. Newman himself, of course, would play the devil.

Warner Bros. Records had always been known as the “artist’s label” among the Hollywood majors, allowing its stars wide creative latitude and nurturing long-term careers. In 1995, though, the power structure that had been in place for decades was being swept out and replaced with an army of bean-counting lawyers. Low-selling Warner Bros. artists, aware that their time at the label was probably growing short, took the opportunity to release the albums they’d always dreamed of doing. Van Dyke Parks, for instance, who had been with Warners since the late ’60s and never sold much of anything, recorded a much-anticipated reunion with Brian Wilson. Newman had Faust. Both albums were greeted with great sighs of critical disappointment, and were expensive flops for the label — Faust would signal the end of Newman’s tenure at the label he’d called home since 1968.

Is it as bad as the critics said? Not really. It isn’t a classic by any stretch of the meaning of the word, but it has its moments — the interplay between Newman’s Satan and Taylor’s God is particularly enjoyable — and Newman wrote some great lines,. But as an album, it lacks the narrative structure that it needs in order to truly translate the story to song. Newman’s Faust was also a play, but unless you were willing to travel to La Jolla to see it, you had to make do with the CD. This isn’t an essential entry in the Newman catalog; in fact, in terms of purchase value, it probably ranks below Born Again. But you’d be hard-pressed to find another songwriter so eager to flex his artistic muscles after almost 30 years in the game. “Can’t Keep A Good Man Down” (download) is a highlight, as is “Feels Like Home”; though Raitt sings it on the album, I prefer this live version performed by Newman (download).

Bad Love (1999)

If VH1 ever lost its mind and did an episode of “Behind the Music” on Randy Newman, then Bad Love would be the triumphant third act, in which the artist overcomes adversity and shows he’s still got what it takes. The album corrects the production overkill that plagued Newman’s previous few releases, and the songs are honestly among the best he’s written. Age has sharpened Newman’s wit; in “Shame” (download), he inhabits the body of a repulsive old creep, alternately begging and threatening his younger lover to stay:

Do you know what if feels like
To wake up in the morning
Have every joint in your body aching, goddammit?
Do you know what it feels like
To have to get up in the middle of the night and sit down to take a piss?
You do know?
So you say
I have my doubts, Missy
Do you know what it feels like
To have to beg a little bum like you for love?
Goddammit you little bitch, I’d kill you if I didn’t love you so much

On “I’m Dead (But I Don’t Know It)” — which sounds suspiciously like something from a late-period Rolling Stones album — Newman dismisses his peers (and himself) with a contemptuous wave of his hand:

I always thought that I would know
When it was time to quit
That when I lost a step or two or three or four or five
I’d notice it
Now that I’ve arrived here safely
I find my talent has gone
Why do I go on and on and on and on and on
And on and on and on and on and on

And with “The Great Nations of Europe” (download), he delivers required listening for American history classrooms, crushing Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire” with a casual bootheel:

The Grand Canary Islands
First land to which they came
They slaughtered all the canaries
Which gave the land its name
There were natives there called Guanches
Guanches by the score
Bullets, disease, the Portugese, and they weren’t there anymore

Now they’re gone, they’re gone, they’re really gone
You’ve never seen anyone so gone
They’re a picture in a museum
Some lines written in a book
But you won’t find a live one, no matter where you look

Hide your wives and daughters
Hide the groceries too
Great nations of Europe coming through

Great songwriters never run out of things to say; age only tempers and refines their perspective. Such is the case with Randy Newman. Bad Love is steeped with regret — “Every Time it Rains,” “The One You Love,” and “I Miss You” are startling in their honesty — but like any great storyteller, he punctuates the darkness with bursts of light, and like any great comedian, he does so by reflecting your life back at you with honesty and a refreshingly original perspective. On “Better Off Dead” (download), he punctures love’s natural optimism:

You might be surprised to learn how often it can happen
In a love affair
(And boy does it hurt)
You fall in love with someone for whom you really care
And they treat you just like dirt
They make you feel all fat and fumbly
Make you feel kind of dirty and flirty
Hey I’m talking to you
Didn’t you hear what I said?

Depending on your level of optimism concerning a graying songwriter who releases albums with growing irregularity, Bad Love is either a final return to form or the beginning of a new era. Either way, it’s damn good.

The Randy Newman Songbook, Vol. 1 (2003)

The idea — Newman, a single piano, and his songs — was a good one. After all, basically anything he’d recorded in the ’80s would benefit from an unplugged reworking. The only problem is that, on Songbook, Newman selects songs that really had nothing wrong with them in the first place, or were basically stripped down to begin with. “In Germany Before the War,” “God’s Song,” and “Sail Away,” just to give three examples, stood little to gain from these new interpretations. The end effect isn’t unpleasant, just dull. One hopes for a Songbook, Vol. 2, in which Newman makes more adventurous choices than “I Think It’s Going to Rain Today” (download) and “The World Isn’t Fair” (download).

And that, my friends, is Randy Newman in one very large and wordy nutshell, at least for now. May you get as much enjoyment from these songs as I have (and may you buy the albums! Click on the album covers and buy ‘em through my Amazon affiliate link!) — let me know what you think. And here’s one last bonus, a quickie recording that Newman made during the (first) Iraq war in 1991 called “Lines in the Sand” (download).

See you next Tuesday for another Complete Idiot’s Guide!

About the Author

Jeff Giles

Jeff Giles is the founder and editor-in-chief of Popdose and Dadnabbit, as well as an entertainment writer whose work can be seen at Rotten Tomatoes and a number of other sites. Hey, why not follow him at Twitter while you're at it?

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