Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer Bad to the Bone

Randy Newman's latest album reveals his characteristics and his characters.

By Chris Herrington

MAY 8, 2000:  One of Randy Newman's greatest subjects is a peculiarly American brand of know-nothingism, a state of ignorant bliss that he slyly savages, yet whose allure he acknowledges, even celebrates. Newman has spent much of his 30-plus-year career exploring the contours of this cultural trait, even yielding hits like "Short People" and "I Love L.A." in the process.

But the opening shot of Newman's most recent album, 1999's Bad Love, the singer-songwriter's first straight-up pop/rock album in a decade, represents this theme at its most intoxicating. The midtempo piano churn of "My Country" builds to a calculated grandeur. Gently stirring, patriotically pastoral, orchestral yet utterly contemporary, it sounds like soft-rock Copeland. Its protagonist sings a hymn to vicarious living that could be Newman's version of a network theme song: "We got comedy, tragedy," he sings. "Watching other people living/Watching other people play." But he finds an oddly affecting kind of peace in the image of a family with "faces softly glowing in the light" of "a television big as all outdoors."

On paper, this may read as sarcastic, but the singer plays it impossibly straight. He believes it. He makes the glow beautiful. The only way it could be a more perfect Randy Newman record would be if Must-See TV really did crib it for promos hawking the new fall lineup, while failing to notice lines like "Feelings might go unexpressed/I think that's probably for the best."

It's the sort of mistake that has been made before. With any Newman song, the narrator's position is hard to pin down. His characters are rarely as smart as their creator, but he never condescends to them. With his majestic arrangements cutting his mocking, blues-guy oratory, Newman never reveals his feelings for the Reaganite speaker ("Let's go back to yesterday" he exclaims to open the song) of "My Country," a man who is grateful for the relief from social interaction that his television provides. Why do his grown-up children keep coming over, he wonders, when they live alone now and have TVs of their own? It's reminiscent of the Kinks' "Waterloo Sunset," another arresting song delivered in the voice of someone content to be a spectator in the human race.

Newman's eschewal of direct self-expression as a singer-songwriter has rarely been to his commercial benefit, of course. In a pop realm where audiences still equate first-person narrative with confessions of the soul, Newman's music is unique in its insistence on that rarest of pop devices -- the unreliable speaker. And Newman's self-perpetuating marginality hasn't been altered by Bad Love, his finest record since 1974's Good Old Boys, even if the gap between the singer and his characters seems to have narrowed dramatically.

In fact, Newman has never sounded more like himself than he does on Bad Love. While most of his early albums were populated by widely varying personages, Bad Love plays like a multifaceted ethnography of one specific cultural type. Nine of the album's 12 songs are about failed patriarchy; the other three sound like throwaways. And if the composite bastard at the album's core isn't exactly Newman, he may be unsettlingly close to him. Witness the far-from-coincidental similarities between the deadbeat dad of the seemingly autobiographical "I Miss You" and the prevaricating pops of the fictional "Big Hat, No Cattle." The first, a love song to his ex-wife and their children, offers an apology of heartbreaking simplicity from a man who would "sell my soul and your souls for a song." By comparison, the good-for-nothing father and husband on the faux-country "Big Hat, No Cattle" steps up to deliver a quintessentially Newman punch line. "Oft times I have wondered what might I have become/Had I but buckled down and really tried," he sings. "But when it came down to the wire/I called my family to my side/Stood up straight, threw my head back, and I lied, lied, lied."

Bad Love follows Newman's shape-shifting antihero from the album's cheapest joke, "The Great Nations of Europe," a bitter singalong primer on 16th-century imperialism, to much more expensive insights. His protagonists can be repulsively familiar -- the despicable lecher of "Shame" -- or comically clueless, like the aging rocker of "I'm Dead (But I Don't Know It)," a deliciously mean has-been anthem that might have been even funnier (if less self-deprecating) had Newman cut to the chase and called it "Rod Stewart." Twice the singer plays an ugly old bastard preying on women half his age, and twice he plays the same old bastard giving jaded advice to a younger counterpart. The same guy from "Shame," who implores the "little baby girl" to come over and see his new Lexus, turns around on "Better Off Dead" to complain about women who "just treat you like dirt/They make you feel all fat and fumbly/Make you feel kind of dirty."

As Newman gets older (56 this fall) and richer (his film scores from the Eighties and Nineties have been more profitable than his rock records ever were), it becomes increasingly difficult to separate these characters from the man himself, or at least from the L.A. bizzers he hangs with. At the very least, Bad Love plays like a behind-the-scenes report on Newman's demographic peers, with the trophy wives, jailbait girlfriends, and liberal guilt that populate the album lending it a distinctly Hollywood air.

Nowhere is Newman more in his own skin than on the Broadway lilt of "The World Isn't Fair." Here he exhumes Karl Marx, brings him to his big house on the hill, and explains that, while Marx's aims were noble, they just didn't work out in an unfair world. He introduces Marx to his wealthy, aging friends ("men much like me/Froggish men, unpleasant to see") who are paired with beautiful second wives half their age. "I'm glad I'm living in the land of the free," Newman adds, singing from the sunny side of the economic divide, with far more reluctant sympathy than sarcasm or bitterness, "where the rich just get richer and the poor you don't ever have to see." The liberal cynic in Newman may shrink from his character's crassness, but he doesn't shrink too much. He acknowledges complicity. After all, their rewards are his for the taking.

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