To end another wonderful decade of great music, I’m going to write about ten albums from each of the last ten years, that are either great, or hold some sort of personal significance. A musical kiss off to 00s.
2008 – #5. Randy Newman – Harps And Angels
I am always exploring old music. It’s a lonely thing to do. Randomly deciding, because of a magazine article, or a cover version, or whatever, to explore the works of some artist from the past. No real current relevance, just a little side bet with myself in the music-loving game. You’re not sharing new releases or live gigs with mates.
I don’t know how I came across Randy Newman. I think obviously it was his songwriting for others. Toy Story. I do remember picking up Sail Away and loving it. I’ve now caught up, and there’s something about every album I love (especially the rarities on the box set). Then, in 2008, along comes the first new Newman record since 1999, since he came into my life. It’s a weird, but welcome feeling, when an artist whose work you loved from 30 years ago, suddenly puts out something new. Harps And Angels capped off a musical affair I had for many years.
The preamble though, is 2007, and a little car accident I got into. I was on my ass, and probably closest to death I’ve ever been. I felt terrible, and old. For some reason, Sail Away was a record I listened to over and over in that time, taking pills to suppress my appetite because my whole lower body was in a mess. I survived, and Harps And Angels was the opposite of Sail Away for me – it was the soundtrack of me coming out of my low.
The title track is the key text here. All southern groove and spoken word, our hero is on his ass too. Sick as a dog, thinking he’s going to die, he decides to pray, and what do you know? God actually answers (in French). It’s that kind of screwball comedy that has been missing in Newman‘s music for a while. And this album, with it’s musings on war, racism, the economy and death – it’s definitely laugh or you’d cry.
Laugh And Be Happy is about a cynical as the title suggests. The masterwork of A Few Words In Defense Of Our Country compares the Bush administration with history’s worse. A Piece Of the Pie attacks the economy with a little dig at Jackson Browne‘s world saving persona. It goes on and on.
Sometimes, it does sound like a grumpy, too-clever-for-his-own-good, old man complaining about the world. And it’s half true, and I like it. But it’s done with stunning wit, and great song craft. After a series of somewhat monotone records, Newman‘s uses a wide array of colors, voices and instruments. It’s probably the best sounding record he’s ever done.
All the cleverness is great, but the record is anchored into real emotion by two ballads. He tackles Feels Like Home, a song he wrote for the Faust musical, with lightness and an honesty he hasn’t touched since his first two albums. Finally, Losing You, combines the best of everything. The lyrical tricks, the pretty melodies, the strings and production, for what is possibly his best song ever.
He’s 66 now, and every time he’s in the news., it’s always about his health. He’s making a mint doing soundtracks and this will probably be his last album – although I hope for just one more. Either way, must feel great to be an old man who knows you are actually better than everyone. And the world is fool of as many slay-able sacred cows as ever.
A Few Words… was released before the album, as an op-ed piece for the New York Times. It’s a weird song, but used to devastating effect.