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Music: Bad Love Is Good News

4 minute read
Richard Corliss

The Newman brothers–Alfred, Emil and Lionel, prolific composers from Hollywood’s golden middle age–would have every reason to be proud of their nephew Randy. This year he was nominated for Oscars in three categories: dramatic score (for Pleasantville), musical or comedy score (A Bug’s Life) and song (That’ll Do, from Babe: Pig in the City). And since he lost in all three categories, as he did the nine previous times he was nominated, Randy Newman might feel a strange satisfaction as well: he’s been writing about bitter losers and empty hallways since the Beatles had bowl haircuts. Newman’s four-CD retrospective collection is called Guilty: 30 Years, as if his career were a near life sentence for the crime of telling the dirty truth in song.

After three decades on the Reprise label, singing acerb ballads and jingles that became hits for others (I Think It’s Going to Rain Today, Mama Told Me Not to Come) and, vagrantly, for himself (Short People, I Love L.A.), Newman has moved to DreamWorks to release his first album of plain old songs since Land of Dreams, his 1988 masterpiece of autobiographical melancholy. How nice to discover that a change of venue hasn’t changed his mood. On the 12 cuts of Bad Love, Newman still sees the world as a nasty place full of sad, warped people–and eminently worth singing about. Bad love, indeed. This is his most brutal sheaf of songs, a panorama of desperate men bleating out their lust and hate, a Raymond Carver cosmology set to music.

The speaker in My Country, the first song, is an oldster reminiscing about the dead old days of watching an antiseptic world on black-and-white TV (“We got comedy, tragedy/Everything from A to B”); he might be Pleasantville’s sitcom dad, now neck high in self-pity. The next tune, Shame, is in the head of a rich coot ranting about the young woman (and the gun) he needs to be happy. The third song, I’m Dead (but I Don’t Know It), is the plaint of a pop singer who, after 30 years, has “nothing left to say/ But I’m gonna say it anyway.” Newman dares you to wonder if he thinks he is that played-out star–and if, in the album’s closing song (which has the sing-along simplicity of his Pixar film tunes), he is at all serious when he sings I Want Everyone to Like Me.

Like him or not, Newman the lyricist is a refreshing irritant. And Newman the composer is a sweet seducer. His music is a lush amalgam of Americana (Stephen Foster and Scott Joplin, George Gershwin and Aaron Copland, classic blues and ’70s California pop); it gives symphonic heft to his cagey misanthropy, makes the tunes endlessly listen-to-able. The jauntiest tune in the new set, a sashaying march for Great Nations of Europe, accompanies a brilliantly bleak history of New World colonization, slaughter and disease (“Columbus sailed for India/ Found Salvador instead/He shook hands with some Indians and soon they all were dead/They got TB and typhoid and athlete’s foot/Diphtheria and the flu/Excuse me–Great Nations coming through!”). The song’s caustic end: that “some bug from out of Africa” might destroy America “like the great nations of Europe in the 16th century.” You are permitted to gulp in horror as you hum along.

Fine, some say, but does Newman have to sing his own songs? He has always sounded like a toothless varmint, clawing the arms of a backwoods rocking chair and spitting out his views on love and politics as if they were gobs of rancid tobacco juice. But at 55, he has grown into the crabbiness of his voice, one that both feels pain and dishes it out. It perfectly suits the fables in this creepily beautiful CD, a sermon not from the mount but from the depths. Newman deserves to be cynical about everything but his supreme gift for telling stories in song.

–By Richard Corliss

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