n First Listen is a regular column that forces our regular writers to listen to bands that they’ve never heard—but by all rights should have—and charts the reaction.
The first time I listened to Randy Newman’s “Rednecks,” I stupidly assumed that it was an unmitigated attack on the South. I did so because Newman’s reputation as a cynic outstrips his reputation as a whip-smart, erudite songwriter. More recently, his reputation as a Disney soundtrack factory outstrips his reputation as a whip-smart, erudite songwriter. No one told me that Newman was capable of empathy or romance, something “Rednecks” provides in spades. “Rednecks”’ description of the Southern gent is easily as proud and beaming as it is mocking:
“We got no-neck oilmen from Texas / We got good ol’ boys from Tennessee / We got college men from LSU / Went in dumb, come out dumb too / Stumbling around Atlanta in their alligator shoes / Getting drunk every weekend at the barbecue.”
That all sounds kinda…great, in a way. It should. Newman adores the South, though he’s too self-aware to let that love go unchecked—one line later, he drops the hammer, “We’re keeping the ni**ers down.” He actually hurts for Lester Maddox (“He’s our fool / If they think they’re better than him they’re wrong”). This was the best part about discovering Randy Newman—learning that he is big-hearted and warm and amorous just as often as he is biting and cranky.
This was not a hard realization to come to and it probably shouldn’t have taken even as long as it did. Newman is a clever lyricist but he’s hardly opaque. The results are mixed: for every time Newman strikes gold—“Louisiana 1927,” “God’s Song (That’s Why I Love Mankind),” and “Political Science” are still sadly relevant—he turns in several clunking rhymes that add a layer of ham to his work that it probably doesn’t need. At his topical best, though, Newman can spin gold. He has a love for sales pitches and his lying, devious salesmen are his funniest narrators. See the slave trader of “Sail Away” or the Uncle Sam cronyism of “Every Man a King.” The devastating pain-junkie family man that inhabits “I Want You to Hurt Like I Do,” might be best of all, a true asshole begging you to wave your lighter for his cause. Newman has a gift, also, for crushing specifics, snuggling proper nouns into his chord changes and lenders his characters local authenticity: his slave trader wants to sail you across Charleston Bay and his buffoons hold degrees from Louisiana State.
Though specializing in wide-screen pop, Newman is an efficient formalist, capable of slipping into an array of styles. When my iTunes rolled over 1988’s jumpy Land of Dreams and onto an unfamiliar reggae track, I initially assumed a playful Newman was responsible. Newman is not overly tied to his whims—they occasionally lead him into ragtime, honky-tonk, or soul—as he generally stays in a comfortable pocket of pop carved out by his blocky piano and tasteful string arrangements. Newman’s work is mostly devoid of the dated signifiers of, say, Billy Joel, though he will occasionally indulge in a spoof, like Land of Dreams hip-hop homage “Masterman and Baby J.” His most famous Disney work (all that I am familiar with) shows no signs of wear: there is functionally no difference between “You’ve Got a Friend in Me” and “Falling in Love,” from 1988’s lovely Land of Dreams. Emotionally, “Friend”’s not much different from “Something Special” from the same album. Declarations of Newman’s softening are essentially without foundation.
Newman is also an undersold vocalist. At his best—Good Old Boys and Land of Dreams—he is a mealy-mouthed cross between, say, John Hiatt’s intentional gruffness and Marc Cohn’s over-trained croon. Newman’s slurring is charming and refreshingly musical, and it blends brilliantly with his most straightforward, warm melodies: “Sail Away,” “He Gives Us All His Love,” and “New Orleans Wins the War” all benefit tremendously from his pipes. Jeff Tweedy whine, who has covered “Political Science” live, owes plenty to Newman’s wicker styling.
All this said, I wish Newman’s albums were a little stronger. I’m sucker for big, primary-color tunes, the ones that sound rosy and loving, even when they probably aren’t. Land of Dreams has plenty of these, including the slightly autobiographical “Dixie Flyer” and the deliriously Hall and Oates-y “It’s the Money that Matters.” Newman’s classic trio—12 Songs, Sail Away, and Good Old Boys—are surprisingly spotty. 12 Songs in particular contains too many ill-defined tunes: “If You Need Oil,” “Suzanne,” and “Lucinda” lack the vigor and definition of Newman’s best songwriting. I tried, but had no time for 1998’s Bad Love, whose second half sags viciously.
Newman occasionally designated themes for his albums—childhood on Land of Dreams, the South on Good Old Boys—but his adherence to them never becomes particularly important. His lyrics get plenty of play, but it is Newman’s efficient, formal pop music that carries the day. Newman is, in fact, far less cold and cynical than other satirists—see Neil Young or Elvis Costello. There is nothing, in fact, to suggest that Newman valued his wit more than his songwriting instincts, something his work as a soundtrack/showtune artist bears out fully. His family lines seem obvious—Joel, Tweedy, Tom Waits—but Newman is not overly valuable as source material. Attempts to enjoy him as a great humorist or cynic are similarly unfulfilling. Love him instead for his wry craftsmanship, his shit-eating grin, and his traitorous heart.
Works Considered: 12 Songs, Sail Away, Good Old Boys, “Little People,” Land of Dreams, and Bad Love.