Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Wednesday Classics, Vol. 2: Sail Away

Sail Away
Randy Newman

There's much, much more to this man than Toy Story. To those of you who are already aware, that will seem like an obvious statement, but it's not. Many people of my age group don't know Randy Newman outside of two things; The music he wrote for various Pixar films, and his appearance on Family Guy. Go ahead, talk about Lois biting the apple. He's one of the great songwriters of the pop era. He earned that skewering.

On his first, self-titled album, Randy Newman wrote mostly off-kilter love songs. On his second, 12 Songs, he started to reach out. Sail Away is when he figures out just what exactly he's capable of. The title track introduces popular music to the concept of the unreliable narrator. Think of it as a Mark Twain book rendered in song. It's a sales pitch given by a slave trader to a group of Africans, persuading them to come to America. He describes America as a wondrous place, without a hint of insincerity. It's a stirring ode to the United States if you aren't paying attention. "Lonely at the Top" is an examination of an egotistical showman; "I've been around the world, had my pick of every girl. You'd think I'd be happy, but I'm not." It's bluesy and boozy, a wonderful song, and it's even funnier if you listen to it aware that Newman wrote it for Frank Sinatra, who (understandably) wouldn't touch it. "He Gives Us All His Love" addresses God, from the perspective of humanity. It can be read as sincere, and has even been covered by Christian Rock bands, or it can be read as sarcastic and withering. Given the track the album ends with, the latter seems more likely. "Political Science" is written in the guise of a man who believes we should nuke the world (except Australia, don't want to hurt no kangaroos), to solve all our problems.

The album ends with the astonishing "God's Song (That's Why I Love Mankind)." It's effect when you listen to the album is devastating. Over a quiet, sparse blues shuffle, Newman speaks as God, and what makes it eerie is how thoroughly accurate he sounds:

I burn down your cities, how blind you must be.
I take from you your children, and you say, "How blessed are we?'
You all must be crazy to put your faith in me.
That's why I love mankind.
You really need me...
That's why I love mankind.

Grade: A+

1 comment:

Joe said...

I don't quite know what to say about those lyrics... they're just... astounding, really.

I've put it on the short list of potential albums I'll buy next along with Dusty in Memphis and the best of Billy Joel.

As far as being aware of Newman goes, I know of the two you've mentioned, Short People, and the song clip on the trailer for Princess and the Frog [that I never I play over and over just to hear Newman sing the words "New Orleans"). I suppose that's not much better.