Randy Newman has always had a dual existence. On one hand, for a long while he has been Hollywood’s go-to guy for light-hearted, slightly jazzy movie themes. His work on movies like “Parenthood,” “Toy Story” and “Meet the Parents” has kept him consistently in the public eye. The other side of Randy Newman is the crankier, more driven side. This is the side he’s shown most on his albums. If you don’t listen carefully, all his songs sound innocent. A closer examination will show that he’s gifted in the art of well-crafted, well-thought-out socio-political trash talk. Sometimes songs like this have gotten him into trouble. Most famously, his song “Short People” angered little people everywhere. It was intended to show that bigotry was ridiculous, but it ended up backfiring.
Other songs over the years have caught people’s attention in a similar way (“Redknecks,” ”Political Science”) but Newman doesn’t seem to mind controversy. He’s outspoken whether we like it or not. First and foremost, though, Randy Newman is a great storyteller. Like Bob Dylan, Warren Zevon and Tom Waits he is an ace writer who goes by his own set of rules.
“Harps and Angels” occasionally finds Newman in a particularly testy place. It makes for very funny, enjoyable listening experience. His sense of humor is dark and twisted sometimes, but that is well balanced by the New Orleans pseudo-ragtime vibe of his musical backdrops. Newman doesn’t so much sing throughout as he does talk his way through. In a strange way, this makes his music connect even more. This draws one’s attention to his lyrics.
The album begins with the title track. It’s a song about a near brush with death. The protagonist is sick and nearly dies, sees heaven, describes it in great detail, is told how he should live and then he’s shot back to earth. It is explained that it’s not his time and that he’s only up there because of a “clerical error.” Suddenly, the protagonist is filled with a sense of belief. There’s awe in Newman’s voice as he describes his surroundings. When God speaks to him and says “Encore! Encore!” Newman says “He spoke French!” with utter delight. A song about near-death is an odd way to begin an album, but it’s typical for Newman. His upbeat New Orleans brand of ragtime-flavored blues makes this anything but dark, though. With the organs, harps and background singers it is actually somewhat of a surreal toe-tapper.
Newman has also always been good for a sentimental number or two. “Losing You” is one of his finest in this realm. “Was a fool with my money/ Lost every dime/ And the sun stopped shining / And it rained all the time. / It did set me back some / But I’ll make it through / But I’ll never get over losing you.” Sung in his signature hang-dog style, backed with a string section, the pain of this song is felt. It oozes with sincerity.
Things don’t remain downbeat for long because next is “Laugh and be Happy.” It’s a musical pick-me-up with just the right shot of adrenaline. “Laugh and be happy / Don’t you ever wear a frown. / Don’t let the bastards grind you down,” he sings, backed by what sounds like a semi-subtle Dixieland-eque orchestra. After a verse or two, Newman surprisingly jumps into the immigration debate! “Now this country that we’re living in, / (You mean the good ol’ U.S.A.?) / It’s never been about keeping you out. / It’s about inviting you in and letting you play. / Laugh and be happy. / Smile right in their face / Cause pretty soon you’re gonna take their place.”
With that he goes into “A Few Words in Defense of Our Country” in which he does admit that our current leaders are “the worst that we’ve had,” but he says they’re not “the worst this poor world has seen.” He then lists everyone from the Caesars, to Hitler and Stalin, to King Leopold of Belgium. He takes a jab at the “war on terror” by saying, “A President once said, ‘The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.’ / Now, we’re supposed to be afraid. / It’s patriotic in fact and color coded. / And what are we supposed to be afraid of? / Why of being afraid. / That’s what terror means, doesn’t it?” He then bemoans the state of the Supreme Court and admits sadly that “this empire is ending like all the rest.” But he makes a point that the people in the U.S. “aren’t bad, nor are they mean.” Moreover, this is a song about his disappointment in our country’s political direction, but it’s delivered simultaneously with a sense of patriotic love for what has been lost.
“A Piece of the Pie” is next. It’s like something out of the zaniest musical you can imagine. The band marches along with a sense of dissonance while Newman talks about how greedy we are as a society, while asking if we have so much money, why we aren’t happier. He sticks in a joke every now and again (“The rich are getting richer, I should know!”) and makes perhaps a few negative mentions of Jackson Browne and John Mellencamp. Obviously, lately Newman, like the rest of the country has got the state of our Union on his mind.
“Easy Street” is almost the flipside. Whereas the people in “A Piece of the Pie” are working hard for their happiness and not truly getting to enjoy it, the characters in “Easy Street” are actually getting to live the good life, even if they behave badly or bend the rules. Privilege and its abuse is a recurring theme. Newman seems to want us to realize how well we have it but at the same time he wants us to treat each other with respect.
The next song could offend as many people as “Short People” once did. Education is the next target and on “Korean Parents,” Newman suggests that we could all learn a lot from his title characters and their strict work-ethic and drive for achievement. It’s definitely a track based on stereotypes. He talks about “Korean Parents” like they can cure all the ills of society. He says they’ll be “someone to whip you into shape. / They’ll be strict but they’ll be fair.” The fact that he’s saying something positive about a group of people might cause less controversy. It’s definitely not politically correct, but that’s never been Newman’s style anyway.
“Only a Girl” is a jazzy ode to an awkward girl who dresses in black, with eyes that are “strange” and a “peculiar” voice. She’s tough and a vegetarian. He describes her in great detail. It’s a stellar example of a character study. The song has a nice turn in the end when you realize it is indeed a love song.
“Potholes” is Newman’s tribute to his troubles involving women, whether it's his wife, his daughter or his mother. In the chorus he sings, “God bless the potholes in Memory Lane.” I’m guessing his message is that all the bumps in the road are worthwhile if you have someone to love who loves you back.
“Feels Like Home” closes the disc. Like “Losing You,” it’s another strong sentimental track. It comes off as very personal and almost like a tear-jerker. Like many of his other songs, this song not only works in his hands, but it would also work if it was given to the right person to cover. It’s classic Randy Newman.
“Harps and Angels” is a remarkably strong record. It should please old Randy Newman fans and win new ones as well. The key really is to pay attention to his lyrics. They may make you laugh. They may make you angry. They may make you think. If you are in the right mood, the ride will definitely be enjoyable.