When he became Pixar’s poet laureate sometime in the mid ‘90s, it seemed like Randy Newman would never return to the dark-as-pitch satirical voice that drove his two ‘70s anti-pop masterpieces Sail Away and Good Old Boys. But sure enough, 1988’s sorta-autobiographical Land of Dreams was followed by 1999’s Bad Love (with the bizarre musical Randy Newman’s Faust as an ignorable stopgap in between), a disappointing but nonetheless welcome collection of snide assessments of world affairs, spoiled rock stars and doofy everymen. But if Newman is a cynic, he’s rarely simplistic: He’s not the hayseed speaker in Good Old Boys‘s infamous “Rednecks”—so liberals may take some defensive comfort in his ironic use of the word “nigger”—but neither is he totally dismissive of said hayseed’s perspective on race relations. Not to mention that his froggy croak reminds you of the demented genius of the grandfather you never had, lending a creepy sense of authenticity to the virulence in classics like “Political Science” and “Sail Away.”
Though his brilliant knack for crafting Tin Pan Alley arrangements and New Orleans-style Dixieland melodies lends itself comfortably to scoring Disney movies, Newman has also proven himself to be the greatest voice of that distinctly American sense of disenchantment and rage. Newman’s crazy-man populism returned last year with 2007’s 12th best single, “A Few Words in Defense of Our Country,” which has since been reworked with a full band arrangement for Bad Love‘s follow-up Harps and Angels. The strings and horns soften the blow a little, both the sardonic blow of comparing George Bush to Nero and King Leopold and the clunky blow of rhymes like “The Spanish Inquisition: It put people in a terrible position.” Like “Rednecks” and “Political Science,” “A Few Words” brilliantly seems to have it both ways: Newman’s speaker chastises liberals for exaggeration (“Now the leaders we have/While they’re the worst that we’ve had/Are hardly the worst/This poor world has seen”) while reminding everyone else that we are on the brink of apocalypse (“This Empire is ending/Like all the rest”). Throw in a couple of purposefully indelicate references to the “eye-talians” and “brother” on the Supreme Court and wrap everything up by wistfully saying goodbye to the American Empire and you’ve got the feel-bad song of the election season!
If this all sounds a little too direct for you, then Harps and Angels is not going to be your cup of tea. Newman’s arrangements, first of all, have never seemed quite this obvious and theatrical, even when he was speaking from God’s point of view on Sail Away. The noisy and too busy “A Piece of the Pie” sounds more like a whippersnapper like Nellie McKay sounding like Randy Newman than it does Newman himself. And the joke in “Korean Parents” is never as funny as it should be. Still, this is an album where the opening title track is about glimpsing the pearly gates and returning to tell the tale, so maybe a little bombast is in order. The two finest songs here, the love ballads “Losing You” and “Feels Like Home,” are the quietest and the least ironic; the latter is quite simply gorgeous, with gentle orchestrations and tender phrasing both in Newman’s lyrics and delivery. If Harps and Angels occasionally seems uneven, it’s because Newman is still so daring. If it seems occasionally classic, it’s because he’s still so insightful and startlingly good at writing songs.