Randy Newman: Harps and Angels

The bard of piano pop makes a triumphant return to songwriting with a scathingly political album that makes the new Nas album sound like a campaign PSA for John McCain.

Randy Newman

Harps and Angels

Label: Nonesuch
US Release Date: 2008-08-05
UK Release Date: 2008-08-04

Randy Newman was never a man to mind his filter.

If they guy has something to say, you are guaranteed to hear it. And on Harps and Angels, his first album of new pop songs since 1999’s Bad Love, its surprising he had managed to get all his sentiments out in only 10 songs considering the amount of socio-political turmoil that has gone down in his nine years away from the songwriting spotlight.

Think about it: When Bad Love was released, America enjoyed a balanced federal budget and surplus of funds, a growing economy fed by an exploding job market in the advent of the Internet’s growth as a palpable career option, a stable environmental landscape and a popular president whose only fatal flaw was his inability to keep his pee-pee in his pants.

And Bad Love was indicative of those times. Though still as biting as a Randy Newman had ever been, that album contained material that hardly holds a candle to the verbal darts he has in store for the Bush empire on Harps and Angels.

After enduring eight years in film score exile, which saw a chicken-hawk president who stole two elections red-handed and then proceed to divide the country into a two-color code system, utilize religion as a weapon of mass destruction, deliver us into what some experts are calling the second Great Depression, help turn hundreds of years of atmospheric stability our planet enjoyed on its ear with ignorant spending cuts, invade a country based on false information, utilize a terrorist attack on American soil as a weapon of fear used to usurp our civil liberties while barely lifting a finger to assist one of the oldest and grandest cities in our nation (and Newman’s hometown) in the wake of a natural disaster, Randy is one pissed-off Southern boy.

And if you thought his lyrics had venom on his 1974 masterpiece Good Old Boys, the songs he’s constructed for Harps and Angels makes Nas’s formerly-titled-Nigger album seem like a news bumper for Fox stumping John McCain for president. Looking down the barrel of senior citizenship at age 64, Newman’s filter has all but disappeared, as one could guess after one cursory listen to the lyrical and musical content on this record. However, Newman chooses to masks his lyrical arsenic in cotton candy; or, in the sense of this album, down home sweet tea.

Even before you listen to the words on Harps and Angels, the first thing you will notice is the undeniable Dixieland sound of Newman’s New Orleans woven throughout the fabric of these ten tracks. Sonically, the music is as whimsical as his soundtrack to 1995’s Pixar classic Toy Story. However, don’t mistake the jovial, showtune-y nature of the music as anything less than just one of the many potshots that Newman takes on the Bush Administration. And when put in that instance, his usage of the N’awlins sound is as much a weapon to drive his point home about the President and his lackadaisical reaction to the flooding of his hometown as crushing speed metal is for Slayer when they rally against God.

The centerpiece here, of course, is Newman’s brilliant iTunes sensation “A Few Words in Defense of Our Country”, which on Harps and Angels is beefed up by strings and pedal-steel guitar that drives the song’s point home even more.

“Now the leaders we have,” he sings. “While they’re the worst that we’ve had / Are hardly the worst this poor world has seen” before rattling off a shortlist of leaders who were far worse than George Bush. Mind you, this is no reprieve, as he mentions the Caesars, who slept with their sisters and one who once appointed his horse as Consul of the Roman Empire, Stalin, Hitler and King Leopold, who invaded the Congo, took their diamonds and gave them malaria, in comparison to the man who deemed fear to be a patriotic act. He even dedicates a verse to the current Supreme Court and dares us “to find me two Italians as tight-assed as the ones we got” taking up space in those precious seats.

Elsewhere on Harps, Newman encourages us, in his trademark cynicism, to “Laugh and Be Happy” atop a romping Mardi Gras march before laughing at those who thought they would have a better life in the richest country in the world on “Piece of the Pie” and trying to fix the personal flat tires he’s suffered hitting the “Potholes” “down on Memory Lane”.

“Korean Parents”, however, might just be the biggest firecracker on this album, and perhaps the hottest potato of a song he’s tossed in our little hands since “Rednecks”. Using a “stereotypically Asian” melody, as he put it in a recent article in the Los Angeles Times, he offers up a commentary on the competitive relationship between Asian and American students in the public school system. He suggests the Koreans sell their disciplinarian parents instead of their babies to possibly help get the American kids who “don’t have a clue” back on track before taking a crack at the WWII era by declaring that he’s “so sick of hearing ‘bout ‘The Greatest Generation’”, offering that such a generation could actually be the youth of today.

What’s great about Randy Newman is that he’s possibly the only artist in American pop who can offer the most touching, gushing scores for films like A Bug’s Life and Monsters, Inc., which burst through the screen with the sweetest sentiments and deliver what could very well be the most controversial album created by a white man in 2008 in the same breadth. But that’s why he’s one of the greatest of his generation. So what if we had to wait ten years for ten new songs? Harps and Angels belongs up there with 12 Songs and Sail Away as one of Newman’s greatest works, regardless of whether he took a decade to get it out into the public. And what a better time to have picked to release it than this most crucial election year.


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