Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Randy Newman

  • 12 Songs [Reprise, 1970] A+
  • Live [Reprise, 1971] B
  • Sail Away [Reprise, 1972] A-
  • Good Old Boys [Reprise, 1974] A
  • Little Criminals [Warner Bros., 1977] B+
  • Born Again [Warner Bros., 1979] B+
  • Trouble in Paradise [Warner Bros., 1983] A-
  • Land of Dreams [Reprise, 1988] B+
  • Randy Newman's Faust [Reprise, 1995] A
  • Bad Love [DreamWorks, 1999] A
  • Good Old Boys [Rhino/Reprise, 2002] Choice Cuts
  • The Randy Newman Songbook, Vol. 1 [Nonesuch, 2003] Dud
  • Harps and Angels [Nonesuch, 2008] A
  • The Randy Newman Songbook Vol. 3 [Nonesuch, 2016] A-
  • Dark Matter [Nonesuch, 2017] A

Consumer Guide Reviews:

12 Songs [Reprise, 1970]
As a rule, American songwriting is banal, prolix, and virtually solipsistic when it wants to be honest, merely banal when it doesn't. Newman's truisms--always concise, never confessional--are his own. Speaking through recognizable American grotesques, he comments here on the generation gap (doomed), incendiary violence (fucked up but sexy), male and female (he identifies with the males, most of whom are losers and weirdos), racism (he's against it, but he knows its seductive power), and alienation (he's for it). Newman's music counterposes his indolent drawl--the voice of a Jewish kid from L.A. who grew up on Fats Domino--against an array of instrumental settings that on this record range from rock to bottleneck to various shades of jazz. And because his lyrics abjure metaphor and his music recalls commonplaces without repeating them, he can get away with the kind of calculated effects that destroy more straightforward meaning-mongers. A perfect album. A+

Live [Reprise, 1971]
Six of these fourteen wonderful songs are on Newman's first album and four on his second, all set off by the arrangements that are the other half of his gift, none crippled by one-take vocals. Of the four new ones, "Lonely at the Top"--originally written for Frank Sinatra, who refused to have anything to do with it--is the only killer. B

Sail Away [Reprise, 1972]
Like most aesthetes, Newman is an ironist. This is fine when he's singing about human relationships, which tend to be problematic, but it's rarely sufficient morally to the big political and religious themes he favors these days. If 12 Songs was Winesburg, Ohio (or even Dubliners) transported to 1970 Los Angeles, Sail Away sometimes has the tone of Tom Lehrer transported to 1972 Haiphong, where he has no more business than Bob Hope. But never before has Newman managed to yoke his orchestral command to his piano, and I hope the leap in listenability will attract some new admirers. Also, the cosmic ironies do fit the title song, in which a slave trader becomes the first advertising man, or perhaps--this is not Tom Lehrer stuff--Melville's confidence-man, for a masterpiece even stranger and more masterful than Newman's other masterpieces. A-

Good Old Boys [Reprise, 1974]
Despite my immense misgivings--Newman's political sensitivity, a useful attribute in one conceptualizing about the South, has never impressed me--I'm convinced that this is Newman's second-best album. It also rights a career that was threatening to wind down into cheap sarcasm. Contrary to published report, the white Southerners Newman sings about/from are never objects of contempt. Even Newman's psychotic and exhibitionist and moron show dignity and imagination, and the rednecks of the album's most notorious songs are imbued by the smart-ass Los Angeles Jew who created them with ironic distance, a smart-ass's kindest cut of all. There is, natcherly, a darker irony: no matter how smart they are about how dumb they are, they still can't think of anything better to do than keep the niggers down. A

Little Criminals [Warner Bros., 1977]
Always the master craftsman, Newman doesn't waste a second here, doesn't permit an inept lyrical insight or musical fillip. But over the past three years he doesn't seem to have written one song that ranks with his best. Among all these explorations of America's dirty white underbelly, only the out-and-out jokes--the gross intolerance of "Short People" and the Eagles music on "Rider in the Rain"--distinguish themselves. Very disappointing. B+

Born Again [Warner Bros., 1979]
This has more content and feeling than Little Criminals. But as with Little Criminals its highlight is a (great) joke--"The Story of a Rock and Roll Band," which ought to be called "E.L.O." and isn't, for the same reason supergroupie radio programmers have shied away from it. Hence, the content comprises ever more intricate convolutions of bad taste; rather than making you think about homophobes and heavy-metal toughs and me-decade assholes the way he once made you think about rednecks and slave traders and high school belles, he makes you think about how he feels about them. Which just isn't as interesting. B+

Trouble in Paradise [Warner Bros., 1983]
The reason 1979's Born Again took three years to sink in for me was that Newman never pinned down the distance between himself and the creeps he wrote his first-person songs about. Because he's gained control as a singer, his oafish drawl here turns into a unifying voice, and the accompaniments are as eloquently integral as the American-colloquial pastiche of his Ragtime soundtrack. So this time the baffled racist of "Christmas in Capetown" and the happy-go-lucky Disney hero of "I'm Different" and the sentimental pimp of "Same Girl" and the mournfully manipulative patriot of "Song for the Dead" and the unflappably egoistic rock star of the outrageous "My Life Is Good" all seem to be the same guy. And while that guy isn't Newman, Newman does go out of his way to understand his point of view. A-

Land of Dreams [Reprise, 1988]
He who lives by the putdown shall die by the putdown, so Newman's first nonsoundtrack album in almost six years is unlikely to increase his renown or his financial holdings. And indeed, it's half mishmash, replete with compulsive irony, rap parody, and spare, hooked love songs that are equally unbelievable happy or sad. But there's a new pitch of displacement to the pseudo-autobiographical triptych at the outset, and a new pitch of bitterness to the scabrous putdowns that highlight the close. The airplay hit "It's Money That Matters" and the "We Are the World" answer song "I Want You To Hurt Like I Do" are the attention-getters. The cruelly laid-back supply-side boogie-woogie "Roll With the Punches" and the symphonically overstated going-to-school reminiscence "Four Eyes" are the strokes. Inspirational Verse: "Here's your little brown shoes, can you tie them yourself?" B+

Randy Newman's Faust [Reprise, 1995]
"What did you discover about musical theater?" wondered a Hollywood reporter more impressed by Newman's Broadway aspirations than by his Faustian ambition. "There's no money in it," replied the artiste, who holds down a day job in the family business, which is scoring movies. And though Newman's pact with musical theatre requires him to sacrifice music, where his gifts are huge, for theatre, where he's a novice, the songs themselves are rich, mocking rock, religion, musical comedy, the classix, and American culture all at once. Newman's Devil is a midlife whiner, James Taylor's God a palavering politician, Don Henley's Faust a bigger creep than both of them put together, Bonnie Raitt and Linda Ronstadt's good girl-bad girl a set piece. Yet these brontosauri dance through their dress rehearsal with the found grace of busmen on holiday, and the pleasure Newman takes in his hubris is so ebullient that the satire never turns cheap. If the project reeks of concept album, well, pardon me for reading--the songs do get even better once you take in the plot summary. And if it reeks of burlesque, well, how better to bum-rush Western civ and "America's greatest art form" simultaneously? A

Bad Love [DreamWorks, 1999]
After an annuity's worth of soundtracks, a box stuffed with marginalia, and Faust, his first true album since 1988 finds him more cynical than ever, about himself above all. Having called one cheap joke "I'm Dead (But I Don't Know It)," he explains the belated tribute to the wife and family he kissed off in the '70s with a simple "I'd sell my soul and your souls for a song," then announces: "But I wanted to write you one/Before I quit/And this one's it." Thing is, cheap jokes and cynicism have always been his gift to the world, and when he's on he can twist the knife. In joke mode, check out not only "I'm Dead," so anti-Randy it'll have young yahoos saying amen like they just discovered Mahalia Jackson, but two of his cruelest political songs ever: one a history of early imperialism where the punch line is HIV, another addressed with dulcet malice to Mr. Karl Marx. For cynicism, try "My Country," which might just be about his family too, and "Shame," where Newman plays a hateful old hard-on indistinguishable from himself. Twisting his croak a turn further are the most articulate arrangements of his singer-songwriting life: jazzlike, but in a piano-based rock context that shifts at a moment's notice to any voicing (Hollywood-symphonic, country march, pop-schlock) that might reshade a meaning or make the ear believe what the mind can't stand. There are a few ringers. But the last time he was so strong in this mode he was married to the wife he misses. A

Good Old Boys [Rhino/Reprise, 2002]
"My Daddy Knew Dixie Howell," "Good Morning" Choice Cuts

The Randy Newman Songbook, Vol. 1 [Nonesuch, 2003] Dud

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

The Randy Newman Songbook Vol. 3 [Nonesuch, 2016]
Yes I enjoyed the first two volumes of this fanbase-stroking specialty item, in which Newman sits down at a piano and reprises some dozen and a half carefully wrought catalogue staples. But without his carefully wrought arrangements, they came up short on use value. Only then I stuck Vol. 3 in my CD slot on a Florida getaway and voila--this was fun, and meant to be. Why else lead with the 39-year-old novelty hit "Short People" and the 45-year-old Three Dog Night hit "Mama Told Me Not to Come"? Why else pair "Simon Smith and the Amazing Dancing Bear" with "Davy the Fat Boy"? True, it's not all yuks--that would be crude. This is indeed where I figured out that 1988's "Red Bandana" was a Bloods-and-Crips fable. It ends with 1988's bleak "Bad News From Home" segueing into 1971's reassuring "I'll Be Home" and then, on the expanded box set version, 1995's heartwarming-by-acclamation "Feels Like Home." But barely fun at all is what follows on the box, 2008's Iraq-steeped "A Few Words in Defense of Our Country" and the even grimmer capper, 2012's all too prophetic election-year sick joke "I'm Dreaming": "I'm dreaming of a white president / Someone who we can understand." You think maybe he underwent a mood shift between September of 2016, when the single CD came out, and December of 2016, when the box did? The theory's too neat. But there's an awful poetry to it. A-

Dark Matter [Nonesuch, 2017]
It begins with an eight-minute playlet enacting a Godsplaining rally in the Research Triangle. It follows with five minutes of "Brothers" JFK and RFK launching the Bay of Pigs to save Celia Cruz. Then comes the four-minute "Putin" Newman put on YouTube last October. All informed and funny and painful and complex, all intricately and wittily orchestrated. But well past a dozen engaging passes I still can't guarantee how replayable they'll eventually prove, which I wouldn't say of five of the remaining six tracks, in particular two heart songs: the multivocal, jam-packed, basic-sounding 3:55-minute tour de force "Lost Without You," in which a frightened old man eavesdrops on a conversation between his kids and his dying wife, and the made-for-TV "She Chose Me," which my wife and I certified as a great pop song by feeling it personally and individually even though it's autobiographical for neither of us. Too bad "It's a Jungle Out There," the expanded theme song of Tony Shalhoub's OCD TV sleuth Monk, seems merely sarcastic. But the only way there'll be a better album in 2017 is if some genius comes up with one that unifies the Democratic Party in song from the left, only not . . . never mind, this is a record review. A

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