A Few Words in Defense of Randy Newman

The renowned wit and composer expounds on the subjects of wit and composing

In August, Randy Newman released his first album of new songs not commissioned for a film score in nine years. Although it's his 42nd album, Harps and Angels is his first recording in and of this 21st century. Newman's songbook is too large for words like "best" or "brilliant" to really mean much to anyone other than the person saying them, though they'd probably work well to start an argument among a small and knowing crowd.

Nevertheless, Harps and Angels seems very resonant. It is music of the moment, which is not something of which Newman makes a habit. It is a collection of songs about a confusing and frustrating period. And as with many of the things Randy Newman chooses to write and sing about—from football to greed to lust to God to bigotry to political correctness—his attention has a clarifying effect. One gets the sense that one of the things that has made the last eight years so confusing and frustrating is that Randy Newman had not yet sung about them.

Newman has made nearly every kind of music that you might associate with American traditions. It's conceivable that certain of his orchestral film scores will outlast their reasons for being and one day migrate toward the classical section of the music store or whatever replaces music stores. (His score for Avalon, from 1990, could pass for Barber or Borodin. And hip parents are grateful that he's become the pet composer for all the Disney and Pixar products they're forced to overhear, over and over.) His voice has become even more friendly and casually Southern, like someone who enjoys leaning into car windows and giving directions to tourists. A collection of diverse sounds, Harps and Angels impresses listeners as the work of a master much in his prime; a man soon to be 65, who has been doing this since his teens.

The question, of course, is, how does a person do this for 50 years? How do you get people to pay you, either with dollars or peer-group awards or radio attention, to remind them of their flaws?

"I always thought the people in my songs were different from the people who listen to them," Newman says. "Like the guy in ‘Shame.' He just seems to me like someone out of Tennessee Williams. He's an old fool. But he's not fooling anybody; not the girl he's singing to, not the people listening. He's not even fooling himself."

"Shame," from the 1999 album Bad Love, is about a freak, an expired Sugar Daddy pleading for the favor of being permitted to purchase affection and being denied.

"Saw your little sandals, baby,
Out behind the wishing well.
Down here in the cool depths of
the Quarter,
Where the rich folk dwell.
They picture you in diamonds,
Satins and pearls.
Come on back to Daddy!
Daddy miss his baby girl."

The good news: "I always think that the people in the audience are better than the people in the songs," Newman says.

The title track on Harps and Angels is a beautiful piece. Set to a slow-sha-wangin' piano boogie, the song centers around a protagonist who is more or less pulled over by angels who intend to issue a fatal heart attack or some such, but let him off with a warning instead. Musically, it's a grand introduction to the record. You'll soon hear Newman-esque takes on Tin Pan Alley, some New Orleans pseudo-second lining, and a few moments that bring to mind Brecht and Weill.

And all that music is there to help tell a story. The music swings on its own as Newman's perspective swings from first-person ignorant to third-person omniscient; from cynical wry detachment to over-investment and simple journalistic suffering. The last lines are a case in point:

"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"

If you're reading this in a lobby or café or near an open window or, let's face it, have ears that send sound to the brain, you know what's a song. Newman's songs are something more or less or other than those songs. Rhyme? Not necessarily, although you'd probably never notice. Fixed key or tempo? Please hold for the next available representative.

"It's really unusual," says Newman of his method. "No one writes fewer love songs. I guess I've written a couple. But they interest me less. I'm more interested in characters. It's not like people came running out of the trenches to follow me when I started doing this."

Newman's songs have casts of characters. Sometimes multiple generations. They have plots, conflict, and, occasionally, resolution. So it's tempting to imagine that he approaches his craft differently than someone more given to ditties and jingles and three-chord Johnnys. He says that for him, it's closer to cinema than literature.

"The best of them I can see a little bit," says Newman. "I can see Harps and Angels pretty well. My first album I tried to do that a lot. I wanted to see if I could move things along with music, and make it into something like drama. I backed off a little when one of my friends heard it and said, ‘It sounds like you've never heard The Rolling Stones.'"

Does it confuse the composer or others that so many of these compelling stories are told in first person?

"Not really," says Newman. "‘Losing You' could well be me. But I don't think it is. They turn out to be autobiographical sometimes, maybe 10 or 15 years after something happens. That stuff comes from somewhere."

Even though Harps and Angels is a lush production, with enormous ensembles and choruses, Newman is performing solo on this tour, as is his custom.

"I've done about 20 shows with a band," explains Newman. "It's too hard. Everything with a band depends so much on the beat. And what I do is comedic, and that's all about timing, too. So people don't get the jokes because they're tapping their toes. Even I'm tapping my toe."

Newman has a penchant for bluntness and has written several famously funny and point-blank indictments of small-mindedness. (Track down "Rednecks," from the 1974 album Good Old Boys, if you haven't heard it. "We got no-necked oilmen from Texas/And good ol' boys from Tennessee/And college men from LSU/Went in dumb—come out dumb, too." In the spirit of equal time, the song later torches popular Yankee preconceptions of Southerners.) So it might seem like good sport to attend a Randy Newman concert just to see which contingent storms the stage first.

Newman says not to worry.

"I'll be playing a lot of songs from the new record," he says. "I'm pretty careful about choosing the songs. I want them to like it. These days, people make my concerts part of a symphony subscription series and things like that. So I'm singing to ladies with blue hair and I can see their faces. I don't want them running up the aisle.

"Tell them it's OK to laugh. It used to happen more often. I'm pretty serious about what I do, and what I do is essentially comedy. I do the best I can, but there are still good jokes and bad jokes."

He pauses to consider what he's just said.

"You don't have to laugh at the bad ones."