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Randy Newman

July 28, 2008

I’m not sure who the greatest songwriter of the last fifty years is–contenders include Paul Simon, Tom Waits, and yes, even Bob Dylan (though I don’t think it’s him). But it’s probably Randy Newman. He’s certainly the best at the craft of songwriting, and has undoubtedly more formal musical talent than any of those other guys. I’m partial to him because I wrote part of a master’s thesis on him and his musical version of the Faust legend, and because he does really smart untrustworthy narrators, something which is rare in popular songwriting. It’s a shame that most people only know him for Disney soundtracks and “Short People.”

At any rate, he has a new album coming out, his first in nine years. It includes “A Few Words in Defense of Our Country,” which attacks the Bush administration (though that’s nearly bandwagon rhetoric at this point). There’s a pretty good interview over at the Guardian as well.

A new album from Randy Newman is reason to celebrate–as his soundtrack work has expanded, his studio recordings of original songs have been fewer and farther between. The last album of original work was 1999’s Bad Love, which itself followed an 11-year hiatus. Newman is acutely aware of the fact that the majority of the listening public doesn’t warm to his songs, many of which are sung in the voices of bigots, drunks, slave traders, or other undesirables. He also likes to criticize religion, as in the brilliantly cruel “God’s Song,” narrated by a God who admits that “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.” Like all of Newman’s work, it delivers biting commentary in the voice of the offender, a device guaranteed to make listeners uncomfortable (and thus pay attention).

Combined with a truly wicked sense of humor (check out the still-relevant “Political Science”), Newman’s ironic character sketches are for my money among the best and smartest music made in the rock and roll era. Go listen to him. He needs you. The new album is called “Harps and Angels.”

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