Thursday, October 16, 2008

Miles Ahead

Randy Newman (Pop)
LP: Harps and Angels (Nonesuch, 2008)

All hail Randy Newman. This American institution long ago staked a claim to the title of "greatest living songwriter" with his early masterpieces 12 Songs, Sail Away and Little Criminals. His Trouble in Paradise LP (featuring the not-altogether-ironic classic I Love LA) was a key touchstone for anyone living in SoCal in the mid-1980s – me included.

As memory of his early ironic/iconic masterworks has faded, Newman has perhaps become better known for a long line of superlative movie soundtracks, including The Natural, Toy Story and Monsters, Inc (for which he finally nabbed an Oscar).

He's also adapted Goethe's Faust as a musical and his old chestnut Louisiana 1927 became the unofficial anthem of the Hurricane Katrina catastrophe after a rousing rendition by Aaron Neville at the Hurricane Relief concert.

But here we are in 2008 and the satirical genius finally drops another big one with Harps and Angels, the title referring to a near-death experience he recently had.

Intelligent, sensitive and capricious, the album is filled with incisive, moving songs which tackle familiar Newman themes: bigotry, political outrage, aging and the perils of American culture. Needless to say, it contains heavy doses of the ironic ambivalence and bare bones emotionalism he's known for.

A Piece of the Pie is a lament for the lost American Dream and a call for his countryfolk to live out the true meaning of their creed ("Living in the richest country in the world/Wouldn't you think you'd have a better life?") As he sympathizing with the plight of illegal immigrants, Newman even takes aim at himself, squirming as one of the “have-mores.”

With characteristic drollness, Korean Parents pokes fun at Asian stereotypes, race in public schools and parental responsibility (“So sick of hearing about the greatest generation / That generation could be you / So let’s see what you can do.”)

Following that, Potholes is an amusingly tart paean to failing memory which anyone aged 40 or over can probably relate to ("God bless the potholes/Down on memory lane/Everything that happens to me now/Is consigned to oblivion by my brain.")

Then comes a bona fide Newman classic. Hearkening back to 1972's Political Science, A Few Words in Defence of our Country is a barbed attack on the most lamentable government in recent American history and its policy of color-coded fear. Its amusing thesis is that the Bush administration really isn’t so bad - compared with Hitler, Stalin, the Spanish Inquisition and the excesses of the Roman Empire!

But for all the mordant, satirical genius on this record, the heartfelt Feels Like Home is the clincher for me. It's tender message of love and gratitude is expressed through deceptively simple poetry which never comes across as trite or shallow.

Musically and lyrically miles ahead of most of his contemporaries, Newman once again demonstrates how nothing beats good, old-fashioned songwriting, and also how depressingly few competitors he has in his field.

So what if takes him the best part of a decade to lay another masterpiece on his fans? When he does, the "bard of barbs" is so awesome he leaves his contemporaries waaay behind. Harps and Angels is a leading contender for album of the year.

VIDEO: Randy Newman "A Few Words in Defence of our Country"


Cushion Meg said...

Hi Shiffi, I laugh at the lyrics of Korean Parents! It is a biting satire, but feels warm.

Shiffi Le Soy said...

Thanks Cushion Meg, I suppose You would know about that topic! :P