A comedy album that will make you weep. A Pixar soundtrack with pitchfork bite. An orchestral slap to the powers-that-be. A legit contender for album of the year. Randy Newman's Harps and Angels, the big-hearted satirist's first studio full-length since 1999, is all great things to all listeners — especially, those who enjoy seeing sacred cattle get prodded.
Digging into his populist bag of Dixieland sway, Coplandian grandeur and Tin Pan Alley jaunt, the 64-year-old takes a break from scoring films like Toy Story and Cars to carve up America — often to what sounds like Buzz and Woody's traveling music.
Out in stores today, Harps and Angels is wild, wicked, often as irreverent and point-blank as Newman's cringe classics Rednecks and Political Science. With more than 70 musicians at work, it's also gorgeous, robust, sweeping. Strip away the words (and his classic barstool bullfrog croak) and it's his most moving music since Roy Hobbs' slugging score in The Natural.
The album's centerpiece, A Few Words in Defense of Our Country, ran as an op-ed piece in the New York Times. It was then released as a spare, near-spoken-word single on iTunes. It's since been reworked as a Wild West gallop, one clueless cowboy defending another: "Now the leaders we have / While they're the worst that we've had / Are hardly the worst / This poor world has seen." He then goes on to list Hitler, Stalin, "men who need no introduction!"
The soft-shoe stroll of Easy Street is music for corporate fat cats ("All your old friends / I know you love 'em so / Gonna break your heart / But you're gonna have to let them go"). A Piece of the Pie is a dinner-theater sendup of life, liberty and deluded pop stars. ("As General Motors goes, so go we all / Johnny Cougar's singing it's their country now / He'll be singing for Toyota by the fall").
In the guise of a government official, Newman advises illegal immigrants to Laugh and Be Happy, which plays like a wacky Disney-movie melange. And Korean Parents, with its Asian-influenced strings, offers a remedy to those of you fed up with American youth. Will these caustic cuts eventually tire like most novelty songs? Maybe, but Rednecks still rocks, right? Its musical complexity will give this stuff long life, too.
Newman's take on religion has always been a tricky one (God's Song, anybody?), but as he closes in on the back nine of life, he poses questions of mortality. Over a Basin Street rag (that turns into an actual chorus of harps and angels), a dying man is greeted by one of heaven's officials: "You ain't been a good man / You ain't been a bad man / But you've been pretty bad." At the song's close, the protagonist declares, "There really is an afterlife / And I hope to see all of you there / Let's go get a drink."
For the longest time, Feels Like Home was made popular by other singers. But here Newman croaks the lonely ode himself, and brings a full orchestra with him. Equally devastating is Losing You, inspired by a story his physician brother told him of parents who have lost a child. Beautiful, brutal, it's the poignant reverse of '77's Texas Girl at the Funeral of Her Father.
Newman's unique ability to tick us off while making us snort and sob, is summed up on the album's best track, Potholes. It might as well be his theme song. As he revisits the "potholes down on memory lane," he leaves no regrets. "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."
Sean Daly can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8467. His Pop Life blog is at blogs.tampabay.com/ popmusic.