When Randy Newman released the single “A Few Words in Defence of Our Country” last year, it was something of an event, and not just because it heralded Harps and Angels, the first studio album by the Los Angeles songwriter in nearly a decade. The song was a spoken-word polemic about Bush-era America set to a nostalgic, old-time country waltz. The lyrics caught the imagination of liberal America to the extent that they were published as an op-ed in the New York Times. The narrator of “A Few Words . . .” is a bar-room patriot arguing the case for America against recent foreign criticism of its imperialist adventures. Though he admits that the Bush government is the worst the American people have ever had, he suggests that it still compares favourably to Hitler, Stalin, éopold II of Belgium, the Spanish Inquisition and imperial Rome.
One verse, criticising “a couple of young Italian fellas and a brother” on the Supreme Court, was considered too bold even for the New York Times. Here are the offending lines: “But I defy you, anywhere in the world/To find me two Italians as tightass as the two Italians we got/ And as for the brother/Well, Pluto’s not a planet anymore either.” I doubt that Antonin Scalia and Samuel Alito, the two Italian-American judges on the Supreme Court, would have minded very much being called “tightass” by a pinko musician, or that Clarence Thomas would have believed he was being seriously defamed. Can you be libelled by the fictional narrator of a popular song? But these are nervous times for liberal America, and the editors of the New York Times presumably thought they were doing Newman a favour.
As a teenager growing up in the Eighties, I thought Randy Newman was just a cheesy cabaret singer with big glasses. He seemed rather like an American version of Richard Stilgoe, the comedy pianist on Esther Rantzen’s That’s Life. I was intrigued that UB40 released a version of “I Think It’s Gonna Rain Today” as the B-side of one of their earliest singles, but just thought it was a bit of a joke. Now I know it’s Newman who’s cool and UB40 who are not, and his songs have gently crept on to the Most Played list on my iPod. Newman himself always knew he was on the right side of this particular divide: check out his 1979 “tribute” song to the Electric Light Orchestra, “The Story of a Rock’n’Roll Band”, for the perfect combination of comic genius and devastating musical taste.
Who else but Newman could have enhanced his reputation as a songwriter by composing soundtracks for children’s films? Who else could have produced an album of such beauty and political anger after such a long lay-off?
There is nothing on Harps and Angels with quite the intensity of early songs such as “I Think It’s Gonna Rain Today” or “In Germany Before the War”. But most people would die happy having written a single one of the songs on this album. “Losing You”, with its delicate orchestration and sparse piano work, is the lament of an ageing man for the one mistake in his life for which he will never make amends. “Feels Like Home”, which closes the album, uses the same combination of piano and orchestra – a nod to black spirituals gives it an extra grandeur – to render the opposite narrative of love found late in life. The lyrics are simple, even clichéd: “Something in your eyes makes me want to lose myself in your arms.” Newman has said slightly dismissively in interviews that “Feels Like Home” is likely to become the most successful song on the album and he is right. It is a perfect little love song.
Newman was dismissive because he knows he can write ballads in his sleep. I am sure he would prefer to be recognised for the more musically and lyrically sophisticated songs, especially the more obviously political material that makes up the core of this album. “A Piece of the Pie” is a rousing, socialist call to arms about continuing inequality in the US. Its companion piece, “Korean Parents”, is possibly the most accomplished track on the album. Taking as its starting point the high academic achievement of the children of Korean immigrants, Newman’s character suggests renting out the parents to boost the results of other American children.
Musically, Harps and Angels is an understated affair. The title track, for example, is a very simple 12-bar blues of the sort first learned by every 14-year-old struggling with the guitar. Newman often uses his unique brand of Americana to re-examine the stories his country tells to feel good about itself. Never has this been better realised than on Harps and Angels.
“Harps and Angels” is out now on Nonesuch Records