Music Review: Randy Newman “Harps and Angels”

Randy Newman has always been something of a riddle to me. On the one hand is the brilliant satirist and musician of such albums as Good Old Boys, Sail Away and Little Criminals which most famously included the song “Short People”. This was the Randy Newman that opened-up my world when I was a teenager to biting social critiscism and deadpan skewering of hypocrisy. Then there was the Randy Newman of the movies–both the tasteful scoring he’s done for films like Avalon, The Natural and Seabiscuit; and his standing-gig for a solid decade as the resident songster for the Pixar movie du’jour. I appreciated the former, and initially found some irony in the latter–his transformation into the go-to-guy for wholesome ditties to accompany Toy Story, Monsters Inc., and Cars. But as the years dragged on without anything else of note from him, I began to worry that this saccharine parody of Randy Newman was all that was left. With his new album, Harps and Angels, Newman doesn’t exactly return to top-form, that’s too much to expect given his accomplishments, but he’s pretty close. At its best, the album offers some of the bite that Newman had let go during his decade of writing for CGI cartoons along with a suprisingly sincere depth of emotion we’ve seen from him before, for instance on the early tracks of Land of Dreams. While that album focused on his childhood in New Orleans and Los Angeles, Harps and Angels finds him pondering his mortality and the follies of aging.

He begins the first and title track with the lyric, “Hasn’t anybody seen me lately/ I’ll tell you why/ I caught something made me so sick/ That I thought that I would die/ And I almost did too” set to a lazy blues rhthym. He goes onto recount a near-death experience in which a pair of Angels appear to him and reproach him for a life full of misbehavior, but also bring the good news that due to a clerical error it isn’t his time. They leave him with the advice,

When they lay you on the table
Better keep your business clean
When they lay you on the table
Better keep your business clean
Else there won’t be no harps and angels coming for you
It’ll be trombones, kettle drums, pitchforks, and tambourines

Newman has taken it as the charge to a prophet, and he plays the role wickedly well whether in the damning-with-faint-praise “A Few Words in Defense of our Country” or lamenting the state of the nation in the Kurt Weill-esque “Piece of the Pie” that:

Jesus Christ it stinks here high and low
The rich are getting richer
I should know
While we’re going up
You’re going down
And no one gives a shit but Jackson Browne

Not only does he repeatedly hate on Jackson, but goes on to take shots at Johnny Cougar for pimping GM (“He’ll be singing for Toyota by the fall”) and Bono (“Off in Africa–he’s never around.) He’s being purposefully hyperbolic in his prophetic oratory (in a live performance he dedicates the song to Jackson Browne and admits he’s done way more commercials than John Cougar Mellencamp). Perhaps more sincerely, on a “Few Words…” he goes after Justices Alito, Scalia and Thomas:

A couple of young Italian fellas and a brother on the
Court now, too
But I defy you, anywhere in the world,
To fi nd me two Italians as tight-assed as the two
Italians we got
And as for the brother, well
Pluto’s not a planet anymore either

For those looking to be offended, there’s plenty more here to offer, most obviously in the already controversial track “Korean Parents” in which Newman, singing in-character, proposes that the cure for America’s educational woes lies in assigning everyone Korean parents,

They’ll be strict but they’ll be fair
Look at the numbers
That’s all I ask
Who’s at the head of every class?
You really think they’re smarter than you are
They just work their asses off
Their parents make them do it.

But Newman’s always been about more than the sending up of stereotypes. While everyone remembers Good Old Boys for the song “Rednecks and its use of the N-word, what always haunts me about that album is the drunken apologies of the bad husband in “Marie” and “Guilty.” The same goes for the simple, pleading affection of “I’ll Be Home” which gets overshadowed by “Short People.” Harps and Angels has some of Newman’s best work singing out of character and from his heart on tracks like “Potholes” about a childhood humiliation and his father’s habit of telling the story over and over again. The track “Feels Like Home” which lyrically has all the makings of a Coldplay over-emoted shlock-fest, “Something in your eyes makes me want to lose myself in your arms;” somehow attains a simple sincerity that approaches dare-we-say, nobility in Newman’s delivery.

And at the end of the day, Newman is his own favorite target, whether as the clueless older-man obsessed with a younger woman in “Only A Girl,” the profligate in “Losing You,” or the sinful prophet, knocked out cold on the pavement, getting a second chance to tell the truth.

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  1. […] On Randy Newman’s new album. […]

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