Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Consumer Guide Album

Randy Newman: Harps and Angels [Nonesuch, 2008]
Post-hippie, Newman's cynicism was tonic. Post-post-hippie, it curdled. Now, freshened by frailty and outrage, it's restorative again. Describing a near-death experience in the title song, he injects a kindness he's rarely risked into absurdist jokes that are as mean as ever, and that moment of compassion adds depth to the three political songs in the middle, two of which target a privileged class that explicitly includes the artiste. The other rearranges 2007's caustic YouTube special "A Few Words in Defense of Our Country": "The end of an empire/Messy at best/This empire's ending/Like all the rest." Did he write those lines in five minutes, fussing for a little longer over "messy," or wait years for them to come? Lyrically, every one of these 10 songs in 34 minutes raises that question, reinforced by the quietest and most casual singing of Newman's mush-mouthed career. Musically, however, he's a fine jeweler, a busy beaver and an old pro. Never have his arrangements exploited his soundtrack chops so subtly, changeably or precisely. You say you want the failure of the American Dream? Try a marching band put through its paces by a dyspeptic Kurt Weill. King Leopold of Belgium? How about a little "Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah"? Arrhythmia? Easy. A