Sunday 24 September 2017

You've got a friend in Randy Newman

Randy Newman is one of the great songwriters of his - or any - generation. 'Dark Matter', his first album in nine years, will not do his reputation any harm

Randy Newman's ambitious new album brings together his famous dry wit with gospel songs and some spectacular orchestral scores
Randy Newman's ambitious new album brings together his famous dry wit with gospel songs and some spectacular orchestral scores
Barry Egan

Barry Egan

Maybe his relative anonymity set Randy Newman free and allowed him to write in a way that he would have been prevented from doing had he more money and fame. Still, I can't help thinking that in an ideal world (one which Newman has always enjoyed satirising), the American would have sold more records than he did and would be more rich and famous than he is.

"I think if I had more success it might have pressured me out of writing just whatever I wanted to write - I don't have that strong a character," he once said. He added of his relationship with fame, "The numbers say that I wouldn't have handled it particularly well. Y'know, if I took pills, I would take more. Thank God I didn't like cocaine. I think I'd have been pretty bad as a person. And maybe I was anyway, but I don't think I could have handled [success]. Fortunately I wrote stuff that people didn't like. I dodged a bullet there."

As he sang in his 1970 song Lonely At The Top: "Listen all you fools out there/Go on and love me - I don't care." But we care - I'm delighted he is playing two nights at Vicar Street in Dublin next March. 'You've Got to Let This Fat Boy in Your Life'. That was the headline of the 1972 interview in Rolling Stone magazine with Newman. In fairness, the headline was a tongue-in-cheek pre-fat-shaming reference to Davy The Fat Boy from his self-titled debut album.)

In 1970, he told a reporter for New Musical Express: "In a word, I'm boring." Over five decades later, a word to describe Newman would possibly be 'genius'. The Everly Brothers, Nina Simone and Ray Charles are among many artists who have covered Newman's songs, while Elvis Costello and Tom Waits have cited him as an influence.

When the Randy Newman album came out in 1968, Paul McCartney rang him at home in Los Angeles to congratulate him.

In 2009, when Bob Dylan was supposed to be talking up the release of his new album, Together Through Life, he instead had these well-earned words of praise for Newman: "I think of him as the Crown Prince, the heir apparent to Jelly Roll Morton (the early jazz pianist and bandleader). His style is deceiving," Dylan said. "He's so laid back that you kind of forget he's saying important things. Randy's sort of tied to a different era like I am."

The magnificently mordant American singer-songwriter was brought to the awareness of a younger age group with certain compositions, most notably You've Got A Friend In Me from Toy Story and If I Didn't Have You from Monsters, Inc.

His ambitious new album Dark Matter - his first since 2008's Harps and Angels - brings together his famous dry wit with gospel songs and some spectacular orchestral scores.

The eight-minute opening track The Great Debate is a sci-fi opera that at one point has one of the characters in it announcing: "Do yourself a favour and use our music/Your music is making people sick." Putin has Randy paying his own particular brand of homage to the Russian supremo: "He can power a nuclear reactor/From the left side of his brain."

Brothers has the imagined White House conversation in 1961 between John F Kennedy and his brother Bobby pre-Bay Of Pigs.

Intriguingly, there is not as much as a song satirising the present - and much satirised - resident of the White House.

"I did write one, just for the hell of it," he told Uncut magazine recently, "but it was just too vulgar. My way into it was to come at it from a female point of view - like it was Ivanka having a dig at Daddy. But the subject is too sore to get into."

Randy Newman plays Vicar Street in Dublin on March 9 and 10, 2018

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