To the extent that Randy Newman is known at all, it’s as a purveyor of sentimental Americana in the soundtracks of mediocre films. Every ten years or so, he scores a minor hit single with a novelty song like Short People or I Love L.A. It’s no surprise then that arguments for Newman as the greatest American songwriter since Dylan strike most people as delusional. But now and again – all too rarely – Newman does what he was born to do, and releases another of his quizzical, brilliant collections of songs. This year it’s Bad Love, and it’s his best work in 25 years.
Newman’s songwriting specialty has always been the virtuosic deployment of character. He seldom writes in the confessional mode favored by so many songwriters, preferring instead to sing in the voice of the most unlikely narrators: A rapist, calling a number scrawled in a phone booth. A drunken, paranoid gas station attendant. A Louisiana teamster stumping for Huey Long. Most memorably, a slave trader, enticing Africans into the cargo hold with a vision of the America that awaits them so sweet, so Edenic, that you forget, for a moment, the horrors they’ll really face.
In his last few records, however, Newman has started to drop the mask. On 1982’s Trouble in Paradise, one noticed that a single character dominated the album: a belligerent, aging Angelino, successful and arrogant but crippled with sexual self doubts. In song after song, he perfectly captured the self-satisfied voice of Reagan-era Los Angeles, culminating in My Life is Good, in which a wealthy musician berates his son’s private school teacher for having the gall to criticize someone who hangs out with Bruce Springsteen. The wonderful tension of the record comes from one’s eventual realization that this character might just be Newman himself.
At its best, the new Bad Love goes even further. I’m Dead takes on his basic situation–aging rock star desperate for market share – and milks it for self lacerating jokes: "Every record that I’m making/Is like a record that I’ve made/Just not as good." I Miss You is a chilling ballad to the family he deserted twenty years before. He’d "sell my soul and your souls for a song," he tells them, deflating the sentimentality of the former claim with the latter admission. The political jokes, often a little broad in his early work, are strong. The best turns the knife on Newman again, as he tells Karl Marx a few things about life, such as why "men much like me/froggish men, unpleasant to see" deserve their trophy wives.
Musically, the album is a return to form. Newman’s best work has always synthesized the New Orleans R & B of Fats Domino and the movie soundtracks his uncle Alfred churned out in the forties and fifties. Recent albums have opted instead for a slick, commercial sound; as challenging as the songwriting is, Trouble in Paradise finally sounds awfully like Toto, its backing band.
This time out, he’s worked with Los Lobos producers Mitchell Froom and Tchad Blake. Backed by a small, expert band, the feel is much like his early masterpieces 12 Songs and Sail Away. The occasional orchestrations are spare and evocative. And his voice – a froggish voice, unpleasant to hear – is in fine form.
Newman has achieved something extraordinary here: the more he reveals of himself, the more caustic his humor becomes. He’s now his own best target, and one hopes he’ll continue to shoot this accurately next time around.