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Record Review from web archive December 2, 2008

Randy Newman

Harps And Angels (Nonesuch)

Back when he was a callow young man, Randy Newman wore his youth uneasily, like clothes that never quite fit. But he was smart enough to turn that into an advantage. An all-too-human awkwardness was the saving grace of Good Old Boys, 12 Songs and other long-ago landmarks. There’s just no way that anyone overly concerned with self-conscious cool could have gotten away with humanizing creepy stalkers, racist blowhards, self-righteous yuppie scum, and the other denizens of Newman’s rogues gallery.

At 65, Newman doesn’t just inhabit his cranky-curmudgeon role, he has become it. He still does character sketches better than just about anyone else. But he can make those sketches be about himself now, more convincingly than ever before.

Of course, he can still bring the snark. Harps And Angels, the pianist’s third non-soundtrack album of new songs in twenty years, gets off withering broadsides about America’s declining fortunes, class warfare, contemporary parenting dilemmas and other topics of modern-day import. The album has earned most of its attention for “A Few Words In Defense Of Our Country”, and rightly so. The lyrics of “A Few Words” appeared on the op-ed page of The New York Times in 2007 as Newman’s alternative State of the Union address, drolly likening the Bush administration to various dictators and the Spanish Inquisition. The recorded version adds a verse about the Supreme Court, and it’s hilarious.

“A Few Words In Defense Of Our Country”

At its best, however, Harps And Angels finds Newman turning down his wry raconteur tendencies to get deeply personal. “Losing You” is simply amazing, lovely and understated late-night solitary pathos worthy of Frank Sinatra at his world-weariest. When those minor-key strings waft up, it feels like Newman has composed a soundtrack to a movie based on Sinatra’s 1959 masterpiece No One Cares.

Even better, there’s a happy ending with the closing track “Feels Like Home”, a beautiful devotional song that has been covered by Bonnie Raitt, Linda Ronstadt and many others. Newman takes it back to the point where it’s hard to imagine anyone else singing it. Doesn’t get much righter than that.

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