Randy Newman and pop music weren’t exactly made for each other.
“It’s like I fell in love with a woman who wasn’t my type,” says the sardonic songwriter, whose caustic new album “Harps & Angels” is the latest addition to a musical oeuvre that gives voice to the characters of perverts, bigots, alcoholics, slave traders, and miscreants of all shapes and sizes.
“If I could have, maybe I should have written short stories, or serious music or something,” says Newman, on the phone from his home in Los Angeles. He is touring in support of his first CD collection of new songs in nine years. “But it’s what I know how to do.”
Newman’s wry, sophisticated music - a mix of Fats Domino and George Gershwin - hasn’t exactly scaled the pop charts. The closest he’s come was with the snide “Short People,” which reached No. 2 in 1978.
He’s not complaining. He’s just observing that subversive signature songs like “I Love L.A.” (“Look at those mountains, look at those trees/Look at that bum over there, he’s down on his knees”) and “Political Science” (which advocates nuking the world to create more living space for Americans - “We’ll save Australia, don’t want to hurt no kangaroo”) present a worldview more askew than pop consumers are after.
“My stuff is indirect, but I think people would understand it, if it was what they wanted from the medium. It’s not that hard. It’s not Joyce,” says Newman, 64, who grew up in Los Angeles and New Orleans. He has had three film-composer uncles, two of whom won Academy Awards, as did Newman himself, for the song “If I Didn’t Have You,” from the 2001 movie “Monsters, Inc.”
“But what they want is direct,” the gruff-voiced songwriter, whose lush film-score work for Pixar productions like Toy Story and Cars has kept him busy between solo albums. “They want music to listen to when they’re doing something else. Having a party, or reading, or cleaning the house. It’s the head-bobbers that they want. And I’m not good for that. My voice isn’t like Norah Jones or James Taylor.”
“Harps & Angels” is probably the most political record Newman has made. It’s centered on “A Few Words in Defense of Our Country,” a sarcastic spoken disquisition with piano. In it Newman, a Barack Obama supporter who sang his emotionally fraught flood song “Louisiana 1927” last month at a New Orleans-themed event at the Democratic National Convention, argues that the Bush presidency has not been so bad after all - when compared with the regimes of Hitler, Stalin, and King Leopold of Belgium.
Newman is miffed at himself for resorting to topical subjects. “I hated it when showbiz folks talked about politics and this and that,” he says. “And here I am doing it.” But his aggravation with the current administration incited him to sit down at his piano with a poison pen. “Maybe it’s because I’m older, but it seems to be really in your face this time. It’s not like a bunch of quiet hoodlums are running the place.”
Along with “A Few Words,” whose lyrics were printed on the New York Times op-ed page after he wrote the song in 2007, “Harps & Angels” contains Newman’s hilariously pointed takes on immigration in “Laugh and Be Happy” and economic issues in “Piece of the Pie.” In “Pie,” he conducts a dialogue in song and sings: “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.”
Not that “Harps & Angels” plays like a current-events lesson. It also amusingly addresses family matters and memory loss in “Potholes,” and contains two straight-up, beautifully rendered love songs in “Feels Like Home” (originally written for the 1993 musical “Randy Newman’s Faust,” and sung by Bonnie Raitt) and “Losing You.”
The latter is a gorgeous piano-and-strings ballad with a universal theme. “Do you know how much you mean to me?” Newman sings “Should’ve told you, ‘cause it’s true.” The song becomes more heartbreaking when you learn that it’s based on a story Newman’s brother, an oncologist, told him about a couple who survived Nazi death camps, then later lost their adult son to cancer.
“They got over losing their families in the camps,” he says. “They didn’t think they would, but they did. But they’re not going to live long enough to get over this. When you reach a certain age, there are things that happen to you you can’t recover from.”
Newman, who lives with his wife Gretchen in L.A. and has five children from two marriages, enjoys other songwriters who, like him, are “funny on purpose. Mostly it’s stuff my kids tell me about, like R. Kelly. I recognize giant talent, and he’s got it. Lily Allen. The Streets, the British rapper. Ludacris. The Notorious B.I.G.”
He likes to perform with an orchestra, but would rather go solo than tour with a band. “I don’t think it adds enough. The beat is too powerful. I like to be able to have contact with the songs, so you can change some things. The idea is to have it be absolutely quiet when you do a ballad, and have them laugh when you want to.”
Newman had his compositions covered by Peggy Lee, Dusty Springfield and Nina Simone when he was in his 20s, and released his first fully formed masterpiece, “12 Songs,” in 1970. His albums have maintained a high standard. Where once they came frequently, though - the Southern-themed concept album “Good Old Boys” in 1974, the tour de force “Sail Away” in 1972 - his last album, “Bad Love,” came out in 1999. “I should have made twice the records I made,” he says.
Looking back on his career, “there’s no great decline, or improvement,” the songwriter says. “There’s weaker stuff on the early ones, maybe. But then there’s weaker stuff on the later ones. I had a style that was really my own. No one else was foolish enough to do it.”