Sometimes it pays to be a cantankerous, acerbic, cynical and brilliant social commentator. In the rush of singer/songwriters that incubated in Southern California in the late ’60s and blossomed at the start of the ’70s, Randy Newman was (and remains) one of the best. He worked through the ’60s as a professional songwriter, penning hits for the likes of Gene Pitney, Jackie DeShannon, and Alan Price.
Harry Nilsson’s 1970 album of all Newman songs, Nilsson Sings Newman, opened the door for Newman’s second album, 12 Songs two years after his eponymous debut. Two years after that, at the apex of the singer/songwriter movement that featured photogenic, long-haired sensitive men, mainly on guitar and vocals, Newman released Sail Away. It’s a 12-song, approximately 30-minute masterpiece that, after 45 years, remains one of the most beautiful, difficult, evocative testimonies to lust, desire, our collective racist past history, Godlessness, and the Apocalypse. Listening to it now, in the midst of another wave of international socio-political darkness that’s spreading throughout the world, what was then daring remains risky, but in an altogether more frightening way.
Today, nearly a half-century into his career as a recording artist, Newman remains a distinct anomaly. Born in Los Angeles into the Newman film-composing family, he spent much of his childhood in New Orleans. He came into the music scene as a tall, curly-headed pianist infused sometimes with a Fats Domino/Professor Longhair sensibility to his playing style. Behind his thick eyeglasses and through his sometimes very distinct Cajun vocalizing, Newman stood out. With misunderstood hits like 1977’s “Short People” and 1983’s “I Love L.A.”, he really made his name as a film music composer. His gorgeous and string-soaked sweeping scores to 1981’s “Ragtime” and 1984’s “The Natural” were balanced with music for the “Toy Story” franchise.
It’s for the audience that knows Newman more for the family films that Sail Away will prove difficult. Rarely had a collection so carefully balanced the small treasures of lust (“You Can Leave Your Hat On”) with unabashed odes to ego (“Lonely at the Top”) and tributes to Cleveland (“Burn On”). What was he trying to weave together? Had this been recorded and released today, it might have been test-marketed to death and relegated to a special interest podcast available only on the dark web. After all, the album gives voices to slave traders, somebody wishing for the end of the world, and a bemused God amazed that humans love Him after all He has done to them.
In 1972, shortly before Watergate and the slow unraveling of Richard Nixon, there was room in our record album collection for difficult ideas. Looking at four key tracks from Sail Away today might prove one thing: the world is completely different now, but nothing has changed.
The “God” Songs
In “He Gives Us All His Love”, in less than two minutes, Newman gives us a fully fleshed out pop song. Here is the God of Sunday School comfort and unconditional acceptance. There He is, above us and above it all, smiling at the hard effort we are putting in for little reward. Babies are crying, old people are dying, but the God they worship remains a constant presence. We can talk to Him, lean on Him, and know His presence will always be there when everything and everybody else has disappeared.
Taken out of context, which has always been dangerous when considering Newman’s work, the unsuspecting listener might mistake this for a sweet piano ballad played in a backwoods church on a Sunday afternoon. Is it sweet? Is it patronizing? It’s a thin, beautiful song played for a generation that was questioning everything from the ’60s and unsure what the ’70s was going to offer.
The mood is much darker and more definitive in “God’s Song (That’s Why I Love Mankind)”. Newman gives voice to Seth in the first line. His brother Abel has been killed by their brother Cain, and Seth wants to know why. With no shaky wavering or hiding behind rationalizations, God responds:
Man means nothing/ he means less to me… He chases ‘round this desert/ ’cause he thinks that’s where I’ll be… How we laugh up here in Heaven/ At the prayers you offer me/ That’s why I love mankind.
This God is dumbfounded, floored that the children He has created are boundless in their faith that He will see them through these dark times:
I burn down your cities-how blind you must be/ I take from your children/ and you say how blessed are we/ You all must be crazy to put your faith in me…”
Where do we go from here when our Creator is laughing at us when we’re not looking? It’s a brilliant, outrageous conceit in pop music, God being given the voice of a weary, cynical loner tired of His gullible, masochistic children. The Rolling Stone review at the time noted that the song reflected Newman’s “tormented spirituality in the face of worldly suffering.” While that argument can be made, it’s more likely this is simply pure, brilliant writing. If there’s a voice to be assumed, you might as well take the oldest voice of all.
The “Political” Songs
The greatest gift Newman’s ever brought as a pop songwriter has probably been his economy of message and infectious piano hooks. Rarely had they been so perfectly merged than in “Political Science”. Here, the voice seems be the leader of the free world, our leader, “dear” or not, finally exasperated that we’ve been alienated from the rest of the world. There’s no sense that we did it to ourselves, but the fact is set out in the first lines:
No one likes us/ I don’t know why/ We may not be perfect/ But heaven knows we try…
In two minutes he breaks down the offenses from most other countries and continents with a jaunty piano beat and clear, decisive choices. Let’s drop the Big One, another unspeakable “final” solution, make every city an American town and start again in our image:
Boom goes London/And boom Paris/More room for you and more room for me.
It’s angry, funny, and more brutal now than ever in a world where complete mutually assured thermonuclear destruction is just a button away.
It’s the title track of Sail Away that remains the album’s masterpiece and probably Newman’s finest moment. Beneath the beauty of the song’s orchestration, and the surface message of finding a new life in a different land, there’s the true horror of the message. Newman is singing in the voice of a slave trader enticing his human cargo to seize the opportunities ahead and realize they’re going to part of the new industry in a land promised to somebody (just not them.)
In America/ you’ll get food to eat/ won’t have to run through the jungle and scuff up your feet/ you’ll just sing about Jesus and drink wine all day/ It’s great to be an American.
In his landmark 1975 text “Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock and Roll Music” (since updated through five editions), critic Greil Marcus argued that this was a beautiful, dangerous song. “It is majestic. You can see the glassy waters, the birds hovering over the ship as the last glimpse of Africa drops over the horizon… This peaceful, quiet song is more outrageous than anything the Rolling Stones have ever done.”
Indeed, the brilliance of Sail Away is that it spoke to what at that point had been more or less unspoken in pop music. Certainly it was taken as a given in the early decades that African American music was coopted and appropriated into mainstream “white” culture to be sold to “white” audiences. By giving voice to the slave trader, Newman was not so much endearing himself to and endorsing the actions as he was setting forth the truth: here is what we have done as nation. We enslaved these people, brought them to a new country, and forced them to create the agricultural/industrial foundation upon which America was built. By presenting the slave trader’s propaganda in such a beautiful context, Newman ensures that we will not forget. Hear the beauty, listen to the message, and take action.
Newman has always been a writer who gathers energy from connecting strands of historical fact with sonic bombast and literary hyperbole. “Putin”, from his new album Dark Matter (2017) features a chorus of “Putin Girls” extolling the virtues of their omnipotent Russian leader. It’s a silly, lush song with full orchestra that wouldn’t be out of place in a Broadway comedy. Like the best comics, though, some of the lines in Vladimir Putin’s voice might also be the mirror we need to analyze what’s happened to America:
I dragged these peasants kicking and screaming/ into the 21st Century/ I thought they’d make it/ I must have been dreaming/ These chicken farmers and file clerks gonna be the death of me.