Randy Newman’s Late Style

Jonathan Bellman

At long last, I have my copy of Randy Newman’s new CD, Harps and Angels. It does not disappoint; Newman’s hilariously skewed worldview is here in full force, and the musical quality is superb. The playing is precisely what you’d expect from (and especially for) the Dean of Angeleno musicians’ musicians. There’s even a geeky musician joke: at the end of the title track, a sort of ironic Santa-knows-who’s-naughty-and-nice take on the afterlife, he closes with a warning: “Or there won’t be harps and angels comin’ for you; there’ll be trombones, kettledrums, pitchforks, and tambourines!”
One of the things I most love about Newman’s songs is that they evidence ever more of the soundtrack composer’s craft and command. He is resourceful with eccentric rhythmic devices, for example, and his scoring is utterly masterful. Most striking to me, though, are the kinds of harmonic gestures that only a consummate craftsman can effect in, say, a 3.4-second window. “A Piece of the Pie” is a tour-de-force sarcastic, smiley-face whitewash of personal economic life and public morals in the U.S., and calls to mind “The Story of a Rock and Roll Band” (a satire of E.L.O., from his the 1979 album Born Again) both in its chattering parallel major 3rds and whole-tone inflections. The satire of a contemporary is also here: at the mention of Jackson Browne’s name, the texture suddenly goes spare and muted, down to what sounds like a soft piano and conga drums—what most of JB’s album Late for the Sky sounds like. Elsewhere, a Salvation Army-type brass ensemble, an organ doing an angel chorus, vaudeville and New Orleans shuffle and Blues styles, all sounding—somehow!—both completely sincere, in the musical performance, and utterly ironic in context. I mean, what else to use for “Korean Parents”—a song about what it really takes to succeed in school!—but a level of musical chinoiserie that is so tired and lame it sounds like one of those love-in-Chinatown songs from the twenties? None of us would know Koréenisme (just made that up) if it hit us in the face with a beer bottle, so the bland chinoiserie, complete with something very close to the Oriental Riff, is the perfect device to use.
Newman has always made much of the “undependable narrator,” the profoundly flawed characters he uses to narrate his songs. More and more of them are frankly autobiographical, and he is more than willing to show us how close his own psyche (and, of course, everybody’s) is to theirs—judgmental, self-centered, inconsistent, and even prone to (apparently) losing his train of thought in the middle of a song. He’s used this device before, especially on the 1999 CD Bad Love; here, in “Potholes,” he starts by talking about women, how much he loves ’em (“I even love my teenage daughter/There’s no accounting for it/Apparently I don’t care how I’m treated/My love is unconditional or something”), then goes off into a rant about his father’s persistent recounting of an inglorious childhood pitching outing Randy had…and closes by sourly wishing he could forget more, not remember more. Not the usual take for “Speak, Memory” kind of song, even when leavened by irony.
The CD is, in short, a feast: hilarious raconteur meets rapier social and political critic meets pithy songwriter meets composer at the very peak of his art and craft. For those who would like a foretaste, here is the entire album performed live, plus a few added songs, by Randy and an all-star band, courtesy of NPR. Enjoy!
I still apostrophize the heavens, and Mr. Newman himself, supplicating for a piano concerto or concerted work. I adore Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue but face it: United Airlines has done something of a number on it. Randy has a complete grasp of all vernacular American musical idioms, knows the piano as one knows a lifelong friend and companion, seems to have boundless melodic and harmonic resources, and is a killer scorer. Just imagine what such a piece from him would be like. I probably wrote this somewhere already in a blog, but when I met him I mentioned this, and he only said “Yeah, but I’m afraid it would just sound like plantation music or something.” Reality: there can be no worries about the quality of the work if he composes to his own specs. Imagine how wonderful such a piece would be. While you’re doing that, I’ll imagine how much fun the thing would be to play.
Meanwhile, Harps and Angels stands with his very best material: a virtuoso production.

About jonathanbellman

Professor of Music History and Literature and Head of Academic Studies in Music at the University of Northern Colorado. Author, *The _Style Hongrois_ in the Music of Western Europe* (Northeastern University Press, 1993), *A Short Guide to Writing About Music* (2e, Longman, 2008), *Chopin's Polish Ballade: Op. 38 as Narrative of National Martyrdom* (Oxford University Press, 2010), Editor, *The Exotic in Western Music* (Northeastern University Press, 1998), author of bunches of articles and reviews and so on. Likes to play the piano, the mandolin, and even guitar sometimes. A. M. and Jo Winchester Distinguished Scholar at UNC, 2011.
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3 Responses to Randy Newman’s Late Style

  1. Hazel Quinn says:

    Hi there, came to your blog through your randygroup post. I like your review very much. Wonderful blog!! Best wishes.

  2. David Cavlovic says:

    Ya know, I always thought that Van Dyke Parks was to Randy Newman just as Prokofiev was to Shostakovich. But, it seems that Parks petered out. Sigh…

  3. Wrongshore says:

    One of my favorite layered Randy Newman narrators is from “My Life is Good” on Trouble In Paradise. The lyrics of the song are ostensibly sung to Newman’s child’s kindergarten teacher, but the song itself is supposedly written by “this young girl” he and his wife picked up on a trip to Mexico. Also, in the middle of it, Bruce Springsteen says he’s tired of being The Boss and would Randy please take over for a while.

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