Randy Newman: Roll With the Punches: The Studio Albums (1979–2017) (Nonesuch) | Under The Radar Magazine Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
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Randy Newman

Roll With the Punches: The Studio Albums (1979–2017)


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It could very easily be that Randy Newman’s golden age occurred in the early-to-mid-’70s, although he has managed to keep his output fairly consistent over the past four decades, with a few unpleasant surprises and humorous reprieves still worth examining long after the fact. Picking up two years subsequent to the release of his controversial hit “Short People,” Roll With the Punches explores, in their entirety, each of Randy Newman’s seven studio albums released within the wake of 1977’s Little Criminals, his unexpected, career-altering success and highest selling album to date.

As his regular roster of underestimated misfits, raging paranoiacs, and self-pitying deadbeats only continued to expand into the Reagan era, his sound continued to evolve apace with each new experiment. That said, his signature sardonic sense of humor has, from time to time, slipped into something resembling genuine disdain.

1979’s mercurial Born Again finds Newman exploring a multitude of troubled personae corrupted by greed, confronted with violence, or blinded by ignorance. From a clueless ELO fan trying his damndest to mythologize his “favorite” group in “Story of a Rock and Roll Band” to the spare and haunting regrets of the unnamed loner of “Ghosts,” the listener is led down a path of unpleasantries, damaged and peculiar, but human nonetheless. Though by no means an inaccessible album, Born Again is a strong shot with a particularly bitter aftertaste, best chased with something a bit lighter in tone—perhaps 1974’s Good Old Boys.

1983’s Trouble in Paradise boasts the ironic Southern California homage “I Love L.A.,” which is one of the major successes of Newman’s ’80s career, and serves as a step away from its bleak predecessor. Trouble in Paradise tackles the important issues, and the album’s spot-on sense of humor is as clever as that of Newman’s previous releases. Still, there are moments of aching sorrow and reflection, as on “Same Girl” and the heartbreaking “Real Emotional Girl.” Key track “The Blues” features an appearance by Paul Simon, with Newman dismantling the prevalent “sensitive” singer/songwriter cliche.

While Trouble in Paradise is an enjoyable release, 1988’s Land of Dreams (featuring the track after which this collection is named) is far more intimate. Unique from other releases, Land of Dreams includes straight-faced semi-autobiographical material intermixed with his usual character studies, as well as two sparkling Randy Newman love songs, the wide-eyed “Falling in Love” and the earnest “Something Special”—rare occurrences in the output of popular music’s sharpest cynic.

Also included is the full performance of Newman’s 1995 reimagining of Goethe’s Faust, a largely forgettable effort, yielding a couple of notable numbers, most importantly “Feels Like Home.” With a cast consisting of Newman’s old Laurel Canyon friends Don Henley, James Taylor, Linda Rondstadt, and Bonnie Raitt, along with Elton John and Newman himself as Mephistopheles, Randy Newman’s Faust might have been an exciting possibility in its day, but it pales in comparison to the rest of the featured material.

1999’s Bad Love sees Newman returning to form, setting out to explore the cold dysfunction present at the twilight of an extraordinary century. Coming out swinging with the opening “My Country,” on which the aging, nostalgic narrator wistfully entertains the probable reality of a brainless, docile American populace, entirely reliant upon television, and lost within its own pervasive sense of entitlement to perpetual entertainment. As evidenced on its opening track, the music of Bad Love is intricately arranged and masterfully performed as only Newman can. His lyrics are just as biting, intelligent, prophetic, and humorous as we have come to expect. The spurned narrator of “Shame” is one of Newman’s all-time greatest characters. Seething over the inattentiveness of his much younger girlfriend, a wealthy man descends deeper and deeper into a near-delirious state of jealous rage—going so far as to yell at the background singers—before returning to his apologetic pleading. Elsewhere, “The World Isn’t Fair” sees the narrator describing to a resurrected Karl Marx a revelation he had at the school orientation of his step-children. Lyrically, it has stood the test of time, but musically, this clever piece of commentary sounds far better on Vol. 1 of Newman’s bare bones Songbook series. Issued here on vinyl for the first time, Bad Love is perhaps Newman’s strongest post-Little Criminals offering.

Roll with the Punches concludes with Newman’s most recent releases, 2008’s Harps and Angels and 2017’s Dark Matter. The former, marking Newman’s reemergence after nearly a decade devoted to film scoring, boasts some of his best recent compositions. The title track finds the outspokenly atheistic Newman assuming the role of a lowly nonbeliever describing his change of heart following a revelatory near-death experience. Other notable tracks are “Losing You,” told from the devastated perspective of a grieving parent following the loss of a child and “A Few Words in Defense of Our Country,” the latter being a facetious attempt to defend the tumultuous state of America and its reputation abroad, reasoning that, at the very least, Hitler, Stalin, and the Spanish Inquisition were still worse than our leaders may be. On the frantic “A Piece of the Pie,” Newman warns of the endless parade of schemers and hypocrites conspiring at the top, calling attention to the efforts of a fellow Los Angeles singer/songwriter, declaring the necessary truth—that “no one gives a shit but Jackson Browne.”

Dark Matter, Newman’s final studio album to date, is a grim slice of commentary concerning the country’s continued downward trajectory into an even deeper pit of chaos and despair. A collection of nine diverse tracks, Dark Matter is the perfect album of its era. The opening suite-like meta-song “The Great Debate” pits the true believers against the scientists (a group which also includes cosmeticians, a lumberjack, a life coach, tree doctors, and Astro Boy) in an arena in Durham, North Carolina, where the two factions are present to hash it out over such imperative issues as global warming and Darwinian theory. This is a song of voices, with Newman playing various roles across the aisle as a noble cause is swiftly reduced to chaos with no ultimate conclusion. The bombastic “Putin” documents a day in the life of the infamous Russian president, as told by the President himself. Claims of superhuman accomplishments, such as riding his giant tractor across the Trans-Siberian plain, powering a nuclear reactor with the left side of his brain, and demonstrating his popular sex appeal by taking his shirt off are counterbalanced by plans of domination and musings on the true nature of greatness. In contrast, the silken lull of “She Chose Me,” another Newman love song, comes as a sweet reprieve, reminding the listener just how capable of greatness Newman has continued to be. Dark Matter encompasses a vast array of sounds and emotions, creating a perfect conclusion to Roll with the Punches.

Roll with the Punches may not showcase the absolute brilliance of Sail Away or Good Old Boys, but there is enough talent present to supply the listener with a satisfactory survey of Newman’s creative abilities as they evolved and solidified over the decades. Even now, it remains imperative to recognize Randy Newman for what he is—our leading singer/songwriter, his classical education and willingness to offend lending his music a timeless strength, often lost on his contemporaries. His ability with words and the individuality of the voices speaking them, as well as their continued relevance, cement him as American music’s leading satirist, always one step ahead, still thumbing his nose at the wicked world as it passes him by. (www.randynewman.com)

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