This second Songbook volume puts further works from Randy Newman’s career through the solo piano treatment. Newman’s music has always been based on a wonderful understanding of sentiment and an ability to affect; whether reaching deep into the emotional banks or serving up humorous insults. His writing doesn’t need anything as grand as a band to support his compositions and his voice, paired with a piano, was only ever going to yield spectacular results.
It has been eight years since Songbook Vol 1 was released and, since then, he’s brought out a critically revered album, Harps and Angels, and has continued his ongoing and award winning soundtrack work. Here, Losing You from Harps And Angels gets the solo treatment and, as with most of Newman’s work, it’s the simplicity that makes it so powerful. Newman’s songs carry such a sense of completeness it’s as though they weren’t written but merely unwrapped and cheerily waved around by Newman. They’re the kind of songs that have always been around, just unnoticed until Newman articulated them. Losing You is testament to this; as soon as the soft tones brush in and the croon of his classic sentiments sail into “I’ll never get over, losing you” it’s hypnotic, sounds completely fresh yet channels the warm familiarity that every pop masterpiece seems to possess.
The solo treatment also warms his less appealing characters and gives them a human edge. My Life Is Good which, when fleshed, quivers to the brim with repellent spite and arrogance from its protagonist but is soft and vulnerable in songbook mode, spotlights a delusion that’s almost pitiful, but not quite.
Newman’s postcards of American moments are almost over-saturated with colour; the exposures burn quickly and vividly. Last Night I Had A Dream, with its jelly fingered bar-boogie, is two minutes of rollicking that gives the inanities of vampire nightmares the poignancy and pastoral Mid-West lavishness of William Faulkner.�It’s clear Newman doesn’t need a band to get a good time rolling.
But he’s at his most affecting when slouched over a piano, softly pondering with refrains for lost love and uncertainty. For every Laugh And Be Happy, a track like Same Girl slaps you across the face with the ominous excitement of Rachmaninoff and the tenderness of Brian Wilson‘s bedroom songs – an In My Room to some spectral or estranged lover. Similarly The Cowboy stops you in your tracks and sends you away to join the travelling, lonely souls. Throwing in a myriad of unusual chords and declaring “Can’t run, can’t hide/Too tired to fight now, too tired to try”, it invites one to share in the sense of endlessness the cowboy feels.
In short, The Randy Newman Songbook Vol 2 is an invigorating celebration of the power of music, and a delicate declaration of the power of one man and his piano.