It’s been nearly 10 years since Randy Newman released an album of new songs, and he comes out swinging with Harps and Angels. It’s a wildly ambitious record—Newman offers both sideways commentary on the state of America in the 21st century and a tutorial on American music from the first half of the 20th century—but an enthusiastically human one, too. Newman’s reputation as a curmudgeon isn’t entirely undeserved, but here he cushions his political barbs with his equally characteristic but often overlooked vulnerability.
There’s plenty of sharp-edged satire on Harps and Angels. In the country-and-western-tinged “A Few Words in Defense of Our Country,” Newman’s narrator lists all the governments he can think of worse than the Bush administration. He ends up with the Roman Empire, the Spanish Inquisition, and Leopold II of Belgium. The jazzy “Korean Parents,” ornamented by swirls of Asian folk music pastiche, jabs at academic prejudice. “Laugh and Be Happy” is a directive to illegal immigrants and, at the same time, an ode to the seismic demographic shifts already underway in much of the country.
All of that’s fine, particularly the Leonard Bernstein-esque “A Piece of the Pie”—”Living in the richest country in the world / Wouldn’t you think you’d have a better life? / If you lived in Norway you’d be fine right now / Get sick there, you make the doctor wait.”
But the pointed political humor pales next to Newman’s more intimate songs. The title track details a near-death experience that leads to a gentle epiphany: “So actually the main thing about this story is for me / There really is an afterlife / And I hope to see all of you there / Let’s go get a drink.” And “Losing You” is a typically shattering Newman heartbreak ballad, the lilting piano and shimmering strings adding up to near-gospel reverence.
The album also offers Newman the chance to show off his songwriting chops. Give him a form and he can nail it. Standards? Check (“Losing You”). Dixieland? Done (“Only a Girl”). Shuffling New Orleans blues? Got it (“Potholes”).
More than anything, though, Harps and Angels is a gorgeous-sounding album. Even when he’s pacing through established forms, Newman’s a master craftsman. There are dozens of presumably top-notch players credited, and producer Mitchell Froom (Los Lobos, Suzanne Vega, Cibo Matto) directs them toward clean and lean performances. But this is, ultimately, Newman’s showcase. And by the time you get to the poignant solo piano on album closer “Feels Like Home,” he will have won you over.