If there was any justice in the world, Randy Newman would be bracketed with Bob Dylan, Paul Simon and Bruce Springsteen in the list of Great American Songwriters. Sadly, despite nearly 40 years of turning out some of the most brilliantly crafted vignettes around, he remains very far from a household name.
This album, his first for the Nonesuch label, consists of re-recordings of 18 of his finest songs, together with some snatches of the many film scores he’s written over the years (Parenthood and Toy Story are just two of the films you’ll have heard his delicate piano being featured in).
Listening to The Randy Newman Songbook it’s understandable in a way why he’s remained a cult figure over the years. Newman isn’t afraid to take on the persona of some rather unpleasant characters in his songs – Short People (not included here) was notoriously condemned as being sizeist, when it was actually a parody of bigotry.
Newman’s characters allow him to create some incredibly clever songs – Rednecks manages to be both a devastating portrait of Southern racism, while also taking a swipe at their supposedly liberal Northern countrymen. Elsewhere God’s Song finds the deity scorning Mankind for their worship (“I take from you your children and you say how blessed are we”) while Political Science, despite being written in 1972, could easily be George W Bush’s foreign policy set to music (“they all hate us anyhow, let’s drop the Big One now!”).
There’s even a laugh out loud critique of Marxism here (The World Isn’t Fair), but it’s not just the political, satirical songs that beguile – Newman is a master at the yearning love song, and Living Without You and especially Marie are some of the most heartbreaking songs you’ll ever hear.
Every track here just features Newman accompanied by his piano, and some may find each arrangement to be somewhat samey. This misses the point however, as the crystal clear production gives us the chance to hear Newman’s wonderful lyrics with no distractions. You Can Leave Your Hat On, best known for Tom Jones‘ lascivious version, is reclaimed by Newman as a sad, almost desperate plea to his lover.
It’s not even worth complaining about the songs that are missing – with two more volumes of the songbook to come, this will surely be rectified in the future. In the meantime this is the perfect introduction to the literate, intelligent and downright wonderful world of Randy Newman.